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South China Sea judgment: Here’s how it matters to India

With the PCA negating Chinese claims over South China Sea, Indian naval warships can now move through the region under UNCLOS without informing the Chinese.

South China Sea, South China, Philippines, Permanent Court of Arbitration, UNCLOS, World, World News, South Asia, In this file photo, a Chinese Coast Guard ship attempts to block a Philippine government vessel as the latter tries to enter Second Thomas Shoal to relieve Philippine troops and resupply provisions. The Permanent Court of Arbitration issued its ruling in The Hague saying that any historic rights to resources that China may have had were wiped out if they are incompatible with exclusive economic zones established under a UN treaty. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The one reference to India in the South China Sea judgment by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is to the Kishenganga judgment of 2013. In that case, the PCA gave India a partial green light to build a hydro-electric project on the Kishenganga river in Jammu & Kashmir, after Pakistan had approached the court citing the project’s environmental impact on water in its territory.

WATCH VIDEO: South China Sea Ruling: How Will It Impact India


Upholding Phillipines’ argument that China had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building an artificial island, the PCA ruled that the general obligation in Article 192 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires that States “ensure that activities within their jurisdiction and control respect the environment of other States or of areas beyond national control.”

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Although this is the only direct reference to India, the ruling still holds significance for New Delhi. With the PCA negating Chinese claims over South China Sea, Indian naval warships can now move through the region under UNCLOS without informing the Chinese. The Chinese, by claiming 80 per cent of South China Sea, have been asking India to notify Beijing of movement of Indian warships through those shipping lanes. The Chinese navy started conveying its intention by mild harassment of the Indian warships passing through those waters. In July 2011, an Indian navy ship INS Airawat passing through the South China Sea, allegedly got into a confrontation with Chinese naval ships which claimed that the Indian vessel was in Chinese waters.


Although Indian navy has not been officially notifying its Chinese counterparts about its movement through these waters, navy sources said that Chinese have been kept informed unofficially to prevent a stand-off. Sources also said that considering Beijing’s indignant reaction to the PCA ruling, the Chinese can be expected to make an extra effort to assert their claim over the maritime space. They are likely to insist on India maintaining the status quo, to notify the Chinese navy about movement of its warships. This will, however, not affect the movement of commercial vessels in any way, which were allowed by the Chinese under the freedom of navigation permissible under UNCLOS.

Under the Act East policy of the BJP government, India has expanded its role at the maritime high table, particularly in South East Asia. Asserting the PCA judgment is an opportunity for New Delhi to assure its friends and allies in the region that it believes in the principle of freedom of navigation to all vessels in international waters. This will enhance India’s credibility and reputation as a maritime power in the region.


This also fits in with the statements issued by the Indian government with the US since 2014. During Narendra Modi’s visit to US in 2014, the India-US joint statement had affirmed the importance of “ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea also featured in the joint statement issued by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter in New Delhi in April this year.

Beijing’s indignant response to the PCA ruling on South China Sea contrasts unfavourably with New Delhi’s acceptance of the PCA judgment on its maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh. The PCA ruling of July 2014 had awarded nearly four-fifths of the disputed maritime waters to Bangladesh. India displayed its commitment to global norms by accepting the ruling, unlike China, a difference that will not be lost on other countries as India seeks its place at various global forums.

First published on: 13-07-2016 at 09:09:59 am
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