Gloves come off over South China Sea

The South China Sea didn’t get a lot of respect – until the last few decades anyway. Now the area that rests between China and its fledgling Southeast Asian neighbors has become a geopolitical flash point. Tensions turned into a shooting war in the 1970s and looks like it could again.

Contenders include the Philippines, a relative lightweight, in one corner, backed by long time ally and former colonial ruler, the US. In the other corner is China, with few real allies in the region, but a heavyweight with plenty of power to land a knockout punch. China claims most of the sea as well as the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands. In yet another corner is upstart Vietnam, also a partial claimant, that is forging new military ties with one-time foe the US, and courting another South Asian heavyweight, India, whose navy has berthing rights in Vietnam. Russia is also interested in naval bases in Vietnam. Other South China Sea claimants include Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. How this will play out is anybody’s guess.

Adding to the tension is the recent standoff between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which has just entered its fourth month – with no resolution in sight. The shoal is rich in fishing resources but the heart of the issue is control of the sea and its oil and gas reserves. If either country backs down at Scarborough Shoal it would set a precedent for the rest of the area.

‘This could turn into one of the defining energy-geopolitical stories of the decade.’

Since April, Chinese and Filipino accusations and innuendo over the shoal abound; ships have come and gone and returned again, saber rattling has intensified, and ambassadors and diplomats have met, disagreed and disagreed some more. And on 31 July, adding to the tension, the Philippines disclosed that it will offer more service contracts in areas with overlapping claims in the South China Sea for oil and gas exploration.

china ring

Oil reserve estimates for the South China Sea vary. One Chinese estimate places potential oil resources as high as 213 billion barrels of oil. A 1993/94 US Geological Survey report estimated the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the South China Sea at 28 billion barrels.

Michael J Economides is a professor at the Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston, and editor-in-chief of the Energy Tribune, where Tim Daiss is the Asia correspondent. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect OE’s position.

Natural gas, according to the USGS, is more abundant in the area than oil. The USGS estimates that about 60-70% of the area’s hydrocarbon resources are natural gas and has placed the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the South China Sea at 266 trillion cubic feet.

As Chinese and Philippine diplomats spar over the standoff, politicians in Manila continue to press for an international solution, trying to force Beijing into accepting widely recognized Exclusive Economic Zone definitions. The Philippines claim Scarborough Shoal as part of its 200 nautical mile EEZ, while China rejects that claim and counters that the area was mapped as Chinese territory as early as the 13th century.

According to UNCLOS, nations with conflicting claims should work out disagreements themselves.

China’s 13th century mapping claim, however, took a hit a few months ago. In April news broke of a message sent to Washington by the US embassy in Beijing on 8 September 2008 and later uncovered by WikiLeaks. Cable 08BEIJING3499 stated that a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official and a local scholar could not identify specific historical records to justify China’s claim that covers the whole Spratly islands and areas within other countries’ EEZs.

Notwithstanding, Beijing sees things differently. A 26 July editorial in China’s People’s Daily, an organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, lambasted the Philippines for bidding out oil and gas exploration areas in ‘China’s territorial waters’, and for sending warships to ‘harass Chinese fishermen in the Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal] waters’. It also condemned ‘joint military drills with the United States involving the exercise of retaking petroleum drilling platform[s]’ and bemoaned Philippine ‘threats to invite US reconnaissance aircraft to patrol disputed areas in the South China Sea’. The editorial also said that the Philippines was trying to take advantage of the South China Sea issue to ‘kidnap’ the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

‘The South China Sea would have been much more peaceful without the successive little tricks of the Philippines,’ it added.

The maritime standoff at Scarborough Shoal continues to play out. But with hydrocarbons in the balance, as well as national pride at stake – by and large deep-seated Chinese nationalism – this could turn into one of the defining energy-geopolitical stories of the decade. OE

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