Indian Ocean and South China Sea: They Belong to Neither India nor China

USS Pickney, Princeton and John C Stennis
Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Eduardo Zaragoza, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most interesting developments of the past week was India’s protest against the United States. The reason for the protest was Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) by US naval ships within India’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Considering the recent rapprochement between the two states, especially towards China, it was an interesting development that the two states faced each other. However, India’s extreme interpretation of the Exclusive Economic Zone was more interesting. The support given to India by the Chinese Ambassador to Malta on Twitter, and on top of that, his rejection of the concept of ‘International Waters’ made the situation even more complicated.

The Exclusive Economic Zone concept is quite new in terms of international maritime law. This concept, which started to take place in international law with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), today brings the states against each other, especially in narrow and semi-closed seas.

According to UNCLOS, EEZ is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea. UNCLOS defines the rights and responsibilities of the coastal states and other states as follows: 

“In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:

(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds;

(b) jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:

(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures;

(ii) marine scientific research;

(iii) the protection and preservation of the marine environment;

(c) other rights and duties provided for in this Convention.

2. Inexercising its rights and performing its duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State shall have due regard to the rights and duties of other States and shall act in a manner compatible with the provisions of this Convention.”

As can be seen, coastal states have some sovereign rights in the EEZ. However, it is also clear that sovereign rights within the EEZ cannot be considered as the ones in territorial waters.

However, states such as India and China interpret the EEZ quite broadly and claim full sovereignty in these areas. For instance, China sees the region within the line that it refers to as the Nine Dash Line historically as its own EEZ. This area covers almost the entire South China Sea. Considering this situation, it may not be possible for any state-owned ship to sail in the South China Sea without the consent of China.

While there is some room for movement when it comes to the oceans, such an approach in closed seas such as the Mediterranean, for example, could cause major problems. For example, no state’s warship will be able to leave its own EEZ without permission from another state. Considering the disputes on EEZ in the Mediterranean, if the EEZ approaches of India and China are accepted in international maritime law, conflict may become inevitable, especially in semi-closed seas.

International law of the sea has originally developed as a customary law. The approaches of states such as India and China, which are expected to have the largest economies of the world in the medium term and represent almost 40% of the world population, cannot be ignored. Therefore, it would not be an assertive approach to state that serious debates await the world regarding the interpretation of EEZ in the medium term.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.