China’s New Maritime Law for the South China Sea


    In Context 

    • In a bid to regulate foreign ships, China notified new maritime rules warranting vessels to report their information while passing through what China sees as its “territorial waters”.

    Major Points of the  new law

    • China’s new maritime rules designed to control the entry of foreign vessels in “Chinese territorial waters”. 
      • Foreign vessels, both military and commercial, will be required to submit to Chinese supervision in “Chinese territorial waters,” as per the new law. 
    • Operators of submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials and ships carrying bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas and other toxic and harmful substances are required to report their detailed information upon their visits to Chinese territorial waters”.
    • The report goes on to add that vessels that “endanger the maritime traffic safety of China” will be required to report their name, call sign, current position and next port of call and estimated time of arrival. 
    • The name of shipborne dangerous goods and cargo deadweight will also be required.

    Ramifications of the move 

    • Over $5 trillion trade passes through the South China Sea, and 55% of India’s trade passes through its waters and the Malacca Straits.
    • The move is expected to have far-reaching consequences for the passage of vessels, both commercial and military, in the disputed South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and is likely to escalate the existing tension with the US and its neighbours in the region.
    • All these pronouncements are very alarming, as they heighten the risk of a possible miscalculation, which can threaten the overall stability and security in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and across the Taiwan Strait.
    • The US, which routinely holds naval exercises in the region, is unlikely to abide by Beijing’s law. It also remains to be seen how the rest of the UNCLOS signatories react to this challenge to the agreement.

    International Laws in this context 

    • Currently, international maritime activities are governed by an international agreement called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of which China, India and over a hundred other countries are signatories (the US, significantly, is not). 
      • Accordingly, states have the right to implement territorial rights up to 12 nautical miles into the sea
      • The UNCLOS also states that all vessels have the right of “innocent passage” through this region – China’s new law violates this.

    South China Sea 

    • It is an arm of the western Pacific Ocean that borders the Southeast Asian mainland. 
    • It is bounded on the northeast by the Taiwan Strait (by which it is connected to the East China Sea),on the east by Taiwan and the Philippines; on the southeast and south by Borneo, the southern limit of the Gulf of Thailand, and the east coast of the Malay Peninsula; and on the west and north by the Asian mainland. 
    • The sea’s major feature is a deep rhombus-shaped basin in the eastern part, with reef-studded shoals rising up steeply within the basin to the south (Reed and Tizard banks and the Nanshan Island area) and northwest (Paracel Islands and Macclesfield banks). 

    South China Sea Dispute 


    • In 1982, the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea was adopted and signed, formalising extended maritime resource claims in international law
    • At this time, no fewer than six governments had laid claim to the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
    • By 2016, these reclamations had resulted in three military-grade, mid-ocean airfields that sent shockwaves around the world, provoked in part by China breaking its own pledge not to militarise the islands.
    • Contesting Claims Over Islands:
      • The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
      • The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.
      • The Scarborough Shoal is claimed by the Philippines, China and Taiwan.
    • In a historic decision in 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against part of China’s claim to the sea in a case brought by the Philippines.
      • China rejected the authority of the tribunal and its finding in the case. 
    • In its ruling, the tribunal considered the South China Sea to be a “semi-enclosed sea” as defined by the Law of the Sea Convention – a body of water tightly or largely contained by land features.


    (Image Courtesy: )


    Significance of South China Sea

    • Great economic importance:
      • The South China Sea, which lies between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, is of great economic importance globally.
      • Nearly one-third of the world’s shipping passes through its lanes, and the waters house numerous important fisheries.
      • It is one of the busiest routes for trade.
    • Natural Resources: The Sea is said to be a major source of natural resources for the different territories. It is a source of about 10 per cent of the country’s fishery, which makes it an essential source of food for hundreds of people
      • This is also a major reason why people from different countries are claiming their rights over the sea.
    •  For India : It is also a critical route for India, both militarily and commercially.
      • The South China Sea plays a vital role in facilitating India’s trade with Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries, and assists in the efficient procurement of energy supplies. 
      • In fact, the Ministry of External Affairs estimates that more than 55% of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea and Malacca Straits.

     India undertakes various activities, including cooperation in oil and gas sector, with littoral states of South China Sea.

    • Peace and stability in the region is of great significance to India


    • China claims almost the entirety of the resource-rich sea as its sovereign territory and was accused by the United States  to “intimidate and provoke others” by parking its vessels near the Whitsun Reef.
    • China’s claim to the sea is based both on the Law of the Sea Convention and its so-called nine-dash line. This line extends for 2,000 Km from the Chinese mainland, encompassing over half of the sea.
      • The “nine dash line” is deemed by most countries as being inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which only gives states the right to establish a territorial sea up to 12 nautical miles. 
      • This claim is contested by its neighbours in the region and by the United States.
      •  The United States and China sparred over the issue at a UN meeting on maritime security, with US saying that it has seen “provocative actions to advance unlawful maritime claims” and China retorting that the US has been “arbitrarily sending advanced military vessels and aircraft into the South China Sea as provocations”.
    • Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to various islands and features in the area.
    • Taiwan, which has been in dispute with China over sovereignty issues since 1949. 
      • This dispute has meant Taiwan is not formally recognised as a state by most countries and is therefore not a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention, nor legally entitled to claim territory. But Taiwan occupies one of the islands.
    • No code of conduct in the region poses more threats to the area.
    • Countries party to this dispute are: China, Brunei, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia etc.

    India’s Stand

    • India has a commercial interest in the South China Sea (SCS) region. But it follows the policy of not involving itself in the disputes between sovereign nations.
    • India has been concerned about the security of its trade flows and energy interests in the South China Sea. 
    • Vietnam has offered India seven oil blocks in its territory of the SCS- this move didn’t get down well with China. India has signed energy deals with Brunei too.
    • India being a member of the QUAD makes China susceptible to India’s stand because the grouping is considered, by the world, to be a type of containing mechanism for China. 

    Way Forward

    • It is essential to maintain and promote peace, stability and development in the area of the South China Sea so that regional stability could be developed and respected by all. 
    • At the same time, bigger countries in the region should be mindful of the views of their smaller neighbours and mediate to find peaceful solutions.
    • The other countries should come forward as facilitators and should encourage the ASEAN group countries to sit down and negotiate the matter with the two non-ASEAN countries, i.e., China and Taiwan.

    United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

    • The UNCLOS is an international treaty that was adopted and signed in 1982
    • It replaced the four Geneva Conventions of April 1958, which respectively concerned the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, the continental shelf, the high seas, fishing and conservation of living resources on the high seas.
    • The Convention has created three new institutions on the international scene:
      • the international Tribunal for Laws of the Sea
      • the International Seabed Authority
      • the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf

    Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

    • Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all states have a right to a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to exploit the resources of the sea and seabed, as measured from their land territories. Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants.


    Source: IE