Chinese hegemony in South China Sea

Chinese Regional Hegemony and the QUAD


The concept of 'QUAD nations' comprising of USA, India, Japan and Australia has been under high speculation for its final shape during the first ‘In-person Summit’ meeting on 24 Sep 21. The Quad was expected to be having a security element too but that looked challenged with the formation of AUKUS just a few weeks before the Quad meeting. There have also been talks of incorporating other regional stakeholders in to the group as ‘Quad Plus’. However, what came out of the summit meeting, is not the final as no policy document or charter has been made as yet.

The Media Hype of Quad Summit

The media hype created prior to the first ‘In-person’ QUAD Summit of the four world leaders were unprecedented. Some predicted China will be decimated other said South China Sea will be liberated. There were expressions that there will be a military alliance and the entire Indo-pacific will be free of Chinese hegemony. It was just like those of as many mouths, as many expectations and as many versions. Finally, the day came…24 Sep 2021, 1130 pm IST when we heard the state heads of USA, India, Australia and Japan spell out their objectives for the QUAD…” A free and open Indo-Pacific”, a 'just exploitation' of marine resources, a joint Covid response, the rearrangements of the ‘Supply-Chain’ in the region among some others. There was no talk of any military or security alliance among the Quad, not that one was expected to be. However, there were some anti-climax too in the outcome of the Quad summit that were hyped.

The post meeting statement made no anti-China rhetoric, no unambiguous support to Taiwan or the Indian prime concerns of either their expansionist agenda of China or of terrorism on its western front. Hence, against the media hypes, the outcome of the first ‘in-person Quad summit’ was lukewarm. However, the experts in foreign affairs and defence have a different take. Most of them now see the Quad taking a formal shape from what it was in 2007 and what it is now. It has been a continuous progress of the very concept.

Actual Problems in the South China Sea

Post Tsunami in 2004-05, four nations namely India, USA, Japan and Australia coordinated the relief response that was given a name of QUAD (the QuadrilateralSecurity Dialogue) of the four democracies. In the last few decades, Japan is feeling threatened by the ever expanding PLA Navy’s presence in the South China Sea in its immediate vicinity; threats to both mainland and its far-flung islands. In 2007, Japan conceptualized it as a possible formidable group. It started an informal strategic dialogue with a shared objective to ensure and support a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region. However, owing to the reluctance of one or the other partners due to various reasons, the formalization of the group remained in limbo till the time the dragon started posing multiple threats…to India, Japan, Australia and worst, the USA in the pacific.

The first informal meeting of the Quad foreign ministers took place in Japan in 2019 as a group showing its first resolve to confront China in the South China Sea (SCS). Thereafter, some progress took place in shaping up the policies after which a virtual summit meeting of the leaders of the four nation took place in March 2021, with a strong emphasis to make the Indo-pacific a safer place for international maritime passage. However, no formal security alliance has taken shape as yet.

Hesitancy among Quad members

Actually, Japan has been showing its hesitance in words because of their trade related economic dependence on China. They had numerous problems with the Chinese on the territorial issues but were trying to resolve them through various negotiations and dialogues. It was only after they perceived a threat to their integrity and passages in the sea that they decided to voice their concerns, hence, the Quad mantra. India too has very little stake in the SCS and the Pacific Ocean per se. India has been trying to bridge gaps with the Chinese for long. The UPA govt had almost towed the Chinese lines…by shelving-off all national interest…be it Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin…incursions in to Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal…or shaping-up international affairs regarding Taiwan or SCS. India had even given up own developments in the border areas along Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Modi govt changed this passivity. Development in national interest started in the Ladakh and Arunachal that made the Chinese unhappy. Modi made a policy of looking straight in to eyes of the adversaries although wanting to avoid any unwanted conflict that could harm national interest. Wuhan dialogue and Chennai connect were in this spirit. However, the Chinese intent of expansionism were clear through Doklam and Pangong incursions. Hence, the govt decided to align with Japanese and Taiwan concerns in the SCS.

India too sounded its interest in the SCS for Freedom of Navigation & Operation (FONOps) for maritime activities that the Chinese had curtailed. They intended to become a composite force in the region extending from SCS to the Malacca Strait. In the past Chinese showed their opposition to any such force taking shape. That was the reason why Australia having strong economic link with China backed off from any joint Naval exercises of the Quad…be that in the SCS or the Malabar exercise in 2007. It was only after some of the Sino-US unpleasant events, that the US showed a clear intent to oppose the Chinese hegemony and Australia, a US ally, voiced support. It was following Raisina dialogue of the Quad in 2018 that Australia showed a clear intent to join the Malabar group. It all flared up after the Wuhan Virus pandemic engulfed the world when both US and Australia wanted the source of Covid-19 to be investigated that angered China. A full-fledged war of words started with China who latter resorted to economic terrorism.

US concerns beyond Quad

The objectives of the Quad cooperation and the Malabar exercises did not address the US concerns in the deep Pacific being threatened by China. The Pacific was rather too far for India to venture with its limited Naval resources and too much of an ask for Japan to venture while living in the shadows of the dragon. Although it is bit too far for UK too but the British has been showing their intent to join in any Pacific Ocean military security alliance. Hence, one that UK is part of NATO and secondly its intent to join a military alliance, were possibly the reasons why Australia (a US ally), United Kingdom and the USA formed the military alliance “AUKUS”, signed just few weeks before the QUAD summit in USA. This of course raises some doubts on the fate of QUAD whether it will remain effective against the Chinese threats. It will be worthwhile examining why China is posing its hegemony in the region.

Chinese Hegemony in the SCS

Immediately after the break-down of the USSR, China has been aspiring to become the world power. A superpower is the one who has the might to do what it wants. Such mights are of military and economic strengths added with a leadership role at international fora like the UNSC. Today China has the second largest GDP in the world with a huge surplus of funds. There is absolutely no doubt that the Chinese economic might is gradually transforming to its military might. It has the largest fleet of naval warships in quantity, not necessarily in quality though. Its Air power has also grown and so is the PLA military power. All these are translating in to Chinese arrogance in the South China Sea (SCS) threatening all other stakes holders namely Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.

Immediately after their independence in 1949, the Chinese started their expansionist agenda in to Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia as well as in to the SCS to unlawfully acclaim the ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ of other nations as well as the international Waters’. They drew nine dotted line in the SCS claiming it to be own and to debar the all other stakes holders from exploiting its resources lawfully due to them.

9-dotted line by China

China also unlawfully started claiming some of the smaller, uninhabited islands of Paracel, Pratas, Zhongsha and Spratly having rich natural resources, to expand it artificially so as to utilize it both economically and as military bases. They illegally made military bases at two of the islands in Paracel and Spartly. The Reef and Woody islands shows
two full-fledged military garrisons of China with runway and missiles deployed.

Militarised islands in SCS

It was an arbitrary and unjustified actions of the Chinese against the UN conventions and laws of the sea (UNCLOS) that demarcated only 12 nautical miles (NM) as territorial waters and other 12 NM as contiguous zone if available. Of course, all nations may have their ‘Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) to exploit the marine resources if that is not shared by others too. All these demarcations are shown in the figure below as shaded areas A, B & C respectively. Beyond the EEZ, it is international water that no one can acclaim and that must remain free to the international communities for maritime activities. As far as EEZ is concerned, here too the international maritime activities are permitted provided information of it is provided for its passage.


In the South China Sea however, it was Chinese illegal action to acclaim the Contiguous and EEZ (shown by different coloured lines) of all other nations incl Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines as shown in the figure below. This was possibly the reason, the international tribunal had no hesitation in rejecting the Chinese illegal claims.

It can be seen above that Chinese claims of the 9 dotted lines joined together (in brick-red colour) impinges on the EEZ of all other nations in the region. China has absolutely no rights to acclaim it. Hence, there are all possibilities of the Chinese resisting the US and Quad Enforced Freedom of Navigations and Operations (FONOps) in the SCS. This of course raised doubts on the fate of QUAD as an effective alliance against Chinese threats. The threats from the Chinese are ever present who will be the last to accept a FONOps in the SCS. Should China pose a security threat anytime in future, some arrangements will have to be worked out. Would this security alliance be within Quad or will come from the AUKUS, remains to be seen.

Clash of boundaries in SCS

Regional resistance against Chinese hegemony in SCS

Following the numerous intimidations in the ECS, Philippines filed a case in the International court of justice (ICJ) which ruled it in its favour in 2016. However, Chinese hegemony continued and they openly expressed their disregard to the ruling and threatened all regional nations. Apprehending reprisal in the hands of the Chinese, those nations chose to refrain from raising the issue in exchange for some economic cooperation and soft loans. This provided China with an excellent opportunity to rule the entire international waters of the SCS, imposing both marine and airspace restrictions to anyone entering the waters. In the region, almost all nations except Taiwan, India and Vietnam had submitted to the Chinese will. Taiwan is already under Chinese threat of invasion. China is also trying to expand in to East China sea as well as in Ladakh bordering India. There have been bilateral squabbles among Vietnam and Taiwan regarding “Taiping Island” and Taiwan and Japan regarding “Senkaku Islands”. China also annexed “Scarborough Shoal and Ayungin Shoal” from the Philippines following many incidents over 2012-14. All the above events emboldened China in to their attempts of expansionism in the neighboring territories. They enforced an air defence identification zone over the entire SCS air space in Nov 2013. Slowly and gradually, the Chinese developed the Paracel Island in to a military zone by constructing a runway and deploying missiles by 2016 as shown above. After the US P-8 aircraft was intercepted by Chinese J-11 on 19 Aug 2014 and again another encounter took place in 2015, Chinese felt they could dominate the sea and the air space above. The Chinese later ventured much beyond in the Pacific Ocean to threaten the securities of US navy and their ‘Guam island’ base that angered the US when they felt enough was enough; and decided to take the bull by its horns and did it successfully too.

On 27 Oct 15, US destroyer USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of an emerging land masses in the Spratly Islands as the first in a series, of establishing a "Freedom of Navigation Operation” in the SCS followed regularly by the USS William Lawrence off the “Fiery Cross Reef” in 2016; challenging the Chinese hegemony. USA in 2019 also mooted for the QUAD group to come strong so as to ensure uninterrupted passage in the international waters in the SCS. On 13 July 20, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement that most of China’s claims in the South China Sea were unlawful and that Washington rejected all of Beijing’s claims beyond twelve nautical miles from Chinese shores, including in waters off Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The announcement aligned US policy with the 2016 international tribunal ruling that the Chinese claims of 9 dotted lines had no legal basis. Two US naval fleets USS Nimitz and Ronald Reagan with aircraft carrier were positioned in the SCS in 2020 when the Quad Navy exercises were held.

Later in 2021, British aircraft carrier and German frigate navigated through the SCS without seeking Chinese clearance. Thus, after the imposition of Chinese dictat in the SCS of entering and navigating with only Chinese permission, the US Navy and various Quad group exercising freely in 2020-21 have broken the jinx. Thereafter, the international water in the SCS is free for shipping and as the resolution of the Quad group took a resolve on 24 Sep 21 to keep it free, it should remain so. Hence, absence of any proposal for Quad military or Security in the recent Quad summit meeting should not be surprising.

Looking at the QUAD with their apparent military backed resolves, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have started raising their voices for the Chinese to obey the ULCLOS in the SCS. There was a near 6-month standoff involving Chinese, Malaysian and Vietnamese ships in the SCS after a Malaysian drillship was at the center of the dispute. Philippines threatened China that had put nearly 200 fishing ships at one of its islands. The composite effort of all nations have made China to realise that it is surrounded from all sides and no longer can afford to do anything other than issuing empty threats. China has been at reasonable unease with the concept of QUAD esp in the last few years. Does Quad have military backing of its founders? There are indications and glimpses of it but there is no formal policy. It will be worthwhile examining the interests of the stakes holders in the Quad group.

Stakes of Quad nations in the SCS

USA has many concerns against the Chinese in the SCS and beyond in the Pacific and the Indo-Pacific Oceans. USA has military accord with the Philippines to safeguard their legitimate interests and the ULCLOS over some of the Spartan Islands. Hence, they are well within their rights of coming to the Philippines assistance. Hence, US Navy has legitimate rights to be assisting its allies in the SCS. USA also wants to stop China from their expansionist approach in the SCS and the artificial islands that may threaten its interest. Hence, from Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State in 2010 onward, US has played its cards against Chinese policies in the SCS very close to their chest. Clearly, the Americans have been aware of the Chinese adventurism in the SCS. After the Chinese applied Air Defense Identification Zone over the entire SCS in Nov 2013, writing was on the walls the USA will break it sooner or later for own sake as well as for the international maritime freedom in the international waters with Taiwan and Japan, having high stakes as their substantial volumes of trades passed through this route. The US would also like to ensure that there is no threat to the interest of its allies in the region namely Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines as well as keeping the maritime interest of the world open in the international waters of the SCS. Above all, The US has been traditionally a dominant power in the region and will never want to be seen as having lost their rights to the Chinese with expansionist agenda. Hence, there are a lot at stakes for the Americans in the SCS and the Pacific.

Another American serious concern has been of keeping an eye on the ever increasing Chinese PLA Navy power in the Pacific Ocean when the two powers came in contact with each other near Guam island. Ever since, USA has been looking for an alliance of trusted parteners with stakes in the pacific. United Kingdom has been NATO ally and Australia its trusted ally with already strong military alliance. That is how the ‘AUKUS’ alliance has come in to force for sharing military intelligence in the vast ocean. It would have been too far for apparently unwilling India to be in the pacific with its limited Naval powers which is considered inadequate for even Indian Ocean and adjoining Seas.

The US intervention in the SCS had taken place with limited military show of strength. Having achieved it, it is unlikely that US will seek any other military alliance in the region to excessive annoyance of the Chinese. The Quad group had already helped in permitting free maritime passage in the SCS and will try to continue in future too. If the Chinese start flexing their muscles, surely there could be more military interventions with AUKUS presence in the vicinity. There is also a possibility of forming a joint security cooperation of all the stakeholders in the SCS duly assisted by either AUKUS or the four Quad members. This is a fluid state of possibilities of the future. 

Japan as a member of the Quad has own interest of danger-free security of the mainland as well as some of its far-flung islands often threatened by China. The main bulk of trades from Asia come through SCS. Hence, any type of restriction or hurdles in the SCS is perceived as threat. Further, they always have Chinese PLA Navy threats on its western sea impinging on its EEZ and hence, needs a free passage of international maritime to keep them (Chinese navy vessels) far away.

Australia has more complex issues in the SCS. They have to voice the concerns of their US allies in the first place as mentioned above. Further they have ~60% of their seaborne trades to the regional nations through the SCS and hence, would like to have both maritime and defence interests of Freedom of Navigation and Operations (FONOPs) in the SCS.

India has dual concerns of maritime free passage through SCS as well as restricting the Chinese expansionism elsewhere in own territories, in Ladakh and Arunachal all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India leverages either restricting or hurting the Chinese interests in the Indian ocean through Malacca Strait, if required. This is why India was thinking of hiring an airbase at the Indonesian Sabang island notwithstanding however, that creating an own airbase on Greater Nicobar island could be more beneficial. That is also why multiple Malabar exercises are partly intended to. The Quad may provide limited leverage as opening another front against the Chinese. This ambition of India is the one that has been making hypes before the Quad summit. The other concern of course, was keeping the maritime interest of Freedom of Navigation in the SCS.

Strike on Chinese expansionism

With the regional powers rising-up against the increasing Chinese hegemony as well as formation of Quad, China’s territorial expansionist ideology has backfired. India has thwarted Chinese attempts of intrusion in east Ladakh. Their hegemony in South China Sea has been severely challenged both diplomatically in the UN as well as by the Quad Group in exercising their marine security and cooperation. In all, the Chinese may have to wind-up their military deployments on some of the artificial islands posing direct threats to the vessels in the international waters of the SCS. There is also a serious challenge to Chinese access to the Indo-pacific because of its vulnerability in the Malacca Strait. By now, almost all ASEAN nations are against the Chinese hegemony in the SCS that will seriously hurt the exploitations of their own marine resources in own waters under legitimate UNCLOS. Chinese brazen disregard to the ICJ ruling on SCS cannot be tolerated.

Time is come the Chinese have to be cut to their size and shown their rightful place in the world hierarchy. The AUKUS is the first military alliance that will forbid the dragon from any major misadventure in the pacific. The QUAD group is making the dragon realise this bitter truth. The summit meeting of the group was expected to take a formal shape of either a semi-military or of purely economic nature. The latter expectation came through in the present Summit meeting. They also deliberated on various burning issues with China that included SCS, the Indo-Pacific Ocean security and increasing Chinese Cyber Crimes besides own efforts of vaccine diplomacy. In the opinion of some of the Defence experts, it will be good if Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are also incorporated as members of the ‘Quad-Plus’ in the near future, as they too have equal stakes in the SCS and will make the objectives of the group more meaningful.


The hype created by the media and speculation groups on the first ‘In-person Quad Summit’ was immense. All eyes were focused on the forthcoming meeting and the tone & tenor of their official brief. However, Quad as expected, has shown a resolve to keep the indo-pacific ‘Free and Open for maritime activities’ for all. They also expressed resolve on various types of cooperation within the group. There were no mentions of going for any security cooperation or expanding the Quad membership to the other stakes-holders. These were on the expected lines and there is no reason to be pessimistic. The Quad has just taken some shape with its objectives not yet formalized in the form of a document. Many rounds of consultations will have to take place before a ‘charter of objectives’ is made and signed by the respective State Heads. The possibility of limited security cooperation cannot be ruled out in future.

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