Tensions are rising in the South China Sea (SCS) as Beijing steps up its military presence in the world’s major Sea Lane of Communication which has yet again brought to the fore significance of UNCLOS as a tool to address the dispute.

The Chinese aggression warrants strong pushback from the international community. Therefore it is necessary for the international community including India to give a call to address the matter as per international law. The Chinese ambitions is not just limited to the SCS region but also the Himalayas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as evident last year when 20 Indian military personnel were killed in the Galwan valley.

China’s aggression in the SCS region has found a new ground, Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels are currently in the area. This has drawn sharp reactions from Vietnam and Philippines. The Philippine foreign ministry on Monday said China's claims that the boats were sheltering from bad weather were "blatant falsehoods" and "clearly [a] false narrative of China's expansive and illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea".

SCS is a key trading route for many countries including India and therefore any aggression there has direct impact on India’s economic stakes. Similarly Japan and Australia have big stakes in SCS as does USA. Entire SE Asia has huge stakes in the SCS region. Therefore it is imperative to read the warning from the recent Chinese actions in the SCS region.

A key US Congressman has applauded the beginning of the Quad plus France naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal and said that he is dedicated to advancing the US-India defence relationship, particularly in support of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.

India and three other Quad member nations- the US, Australia and Japan on Monday joined France in kick-starting a three-day naval wargame in the eastern Indian Ocean in reflection of their growing maritime cooperation amid China's growing efforts to expand influence in the region.

"Great to see the US and India participating in the Quad + France naval exercise beginning today in the Bay of Bengal," Congressman Brad Sherman said in a tweet on Monday. Sherman is the co-chair of the India Caucus in the US House of Representatives. Congressman Steve Chabot is the other co-chair.

As co-chairs of Indian Caucus, Chabot and "I are dedicated to advancing the US-India defence relationship, particularly in support of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific," Sherman said.

The Indian Defence Ministry said that Indian Navy Ships INS Satpura (with an integral helicopter embarked) and INS Kiltan along with P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft are participating, for the first time; in multi-lateral maritime exercise La Perouse, being conducted in the Eastern Indian Ocean Region from April 5 to 7.

The Indian Navy ships and aircraft exercised at sea with ships and aircraft of French Navy (FN), Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) and United States Navy (USN) during the three day exercise at sea. The exercise La Prrouse, led by French Navy, has participation by FN Ships Tonnerre, an amphibious assault ship and frigate Surcouf. United States Navy is represented in the exercise by amphibious transport dock ship Somerset.

Her Majesty's Australian Ships (HMAS) Anzac, a frigate and tanker Sirius have been deployed by RAN for participation in the exercise while Japan Maritime Self Defence Ship (JMSDF) is represented by the destroyer Akebono. In addition to the ships, integral helicopters embarked onboard ships will also participate in the exercise.

Exercise La Perouse witnessed complex and advanced naval operations including surface warfare, anti-air warfare and air defence exercises, weapon firing exercises, cross deck flying operations, tactical manoeuvres and seamanship evolutions such as replenishment at sea.

The exercise will showcase high levels of synergy, coordination and inter-operability between the friendly navies. Participation by the Indian Navy in the exercise demonstrates the shared values with friendly navies ensuring freedom of seas and commitment to an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order.

The evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region in the wake of China's increasing military muscle-flexing has become a major talking point among leading global powers. The exercise comes close on the heels of the maiden Quad summit that witnessed four leaders emphasise on the rules based order. In November 2017, India, Japan, the US and Australia gave shape to the long-pending proposal of setting up the Quad to develop a new strategy to keep the critical sea routes in the Indo-Pacific free of any influence.

China must end its violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty in the East Sea, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang had recently said in response to a reporter’s question about Vietnam’s position regarding Chinese ships operating at the Bai Ba Dau (Whitsun Reef) in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago.

In April last year, China sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel and also disrupted Malaysian oil exploration. This prompted the United States to deploy aircraft and navy vessels to assess the situation. The present situation is already tense with what it appears. The South China Sea is grouped into three archipelagos including the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands and Hanoi has evidence to prove its sovereignty over these two islands.

Vietnam has been particularly outspoken against China over the maritime dispute since the 1970s. Vietnam and Malaysia have decided to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) later this year to strengthen cooperation in maritime security, a Malaysian official said.

At a regular press conference of the ministry on March 25, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed that Vietnam has sufficient legal grounds and historical evidence to affirm its sovereignty over Truong Sa in accordance with international law. She went on to say that as a coastal country and a member of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Vietnam is entitled to sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over waters established in accordance with the UNCLOS.

“The operation of Chinese ships within the territorial waters of Sinh Ton Dong island in the Spratly has violated Vietnam’s sovereignty and the UNCLOS’s stipulation on the operation of foreign vessels in the territorial waters of coastal nations, ran counter to the spirit and content of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC), and complicated the situation which is unfavourable for the process of negotiations between the ASEAN and China on a Code of Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (COC),” the spokesperson stressed.

Vietnam has been demanding that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty, implement the UNCLOS with goodwill, seriously comply with the DOC, especially the obligation of self-restraint so as to not complicate the situation and to create a favourable environment for the COC negotiation, thus contributing to the maintenance of peace, security, stability and legal order at sea in the region.

Implementation of this is under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) of ASEAN. The content of the Code of Conduct (COC) is being completed, and this must be done according to the actual situation.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has spotted Chinese drones circling the Taipei-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea and may shoot them down if they stray too close, a government minister said on Wednesday, a move that could dramatically increase tensions with Beijing.

The USA could respond strongly. “The U.S. 7th Fleet announced on April 6 that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group had entered the South China Sea two days before, on April 4, to conduct “routine operations.” This would be the second time this year that the strike group – consisting of flag ship carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Carrier Air Wing 11, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, Destroyer Squadron 23, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell – has entered that body of water as part of its tasking within the 7th Fleet’s area of operations,” according to an article by Abhijnan Rej in The Diplomat.

The Theodore Roosevelt’s return to the South China Sea comes amid growing regional tensions that – if left unchecked – threaten to boil over, as analysts continue to be apprehensive about China’s coercive posture toward Taiwan, and its use of maritime militia to enforce illegal claims in the South China Sea, most recently within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to The Diplomat article.

Vietnam, now with the new political leadership, is committed to protect sovereignty of the country amid China’s aggression.