Murky Waters: Politics in the South China Sea

Melissa M. Cyrill is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 11, 2012

    The last two years have witnessed a heady interplay of inter-state disputes and constant strategic manoeuvring, if not intrigue, in the South China Sea (SCS). Beyond anything else, it gives the world a sure glimpse of the possibility of future energy wars over oil and gas resources in this energy-rich area, which is moreover emerging as a hotbed of global power politics. Understanding the South China Sea dispute thus involves a series of complex and interwoven technical, legal, economic and geographic claims, the most critical of which involves issues of territory and sovereignty.

    Located to the south of mainland China and Taiwan, west of Philippines and east of Vietnam, north of Indonesia, north-west of Malaysia and Brunei and north-east of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, the South China Sea is the maritime heart of South-East Asia. Its strategic location - extending from the Strait of Malacca in the southwest to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast - straddles the world’s second busiest international sea lane and its waters see the passage of over half the world’s oil tanker traffic the world’s merchant fleet (by tonnage).1 The region also serves as a strategic maritime link between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean and is therefore of overriding importance to major naval powers, both regional and extra-regional. The geography of the South China Sea includes about 200 small islands, rocks, and reefs, with the bulk located in the Paracel and Spratly Island chains.

    The SCS disputes originated after the end of World War II when the littoral states – China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - scrambled to occupy the various islands. 2 Since the 1990's, the conflict has transformed from being a purely territorial one to one involving competitive claims and access to oil and gas reserves as well as fishing and ocean resources. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has put the oil reserves in the SCS to be around 28 billion barrels (based on an estimate made by the US Geological Survey in 1993/1994),3 while Chinese number-crunching places potential oil resources at between 213 billion barrels (a 2008 estimate cited by the EIA) and 105 billion barrels. However, these estimates have not yet become proven reserves due to the lack of exploratory drillings in those areas, with the region’s sensitivity impeding efforts at testing and validating whether these resources are indeed technologically and economically feasible to extract.4 The vitality of the SCS is thus richly reflected in its resources, resourcefulness and strengths and vulnerabilities.5

    China, for one, has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea including what is recognised by the United Nations as the exclusive economic zones of other neighbours - the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei. Irrespective of UN stipulations, China argues that its claims to the SCS are legitimate, based on both the EEZ and continental shelf principles as well as the historical records of the Han (110 AD) and Ming (1403-1433 AD) Dynasties.6 In fact, in 1974, China seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam over which it still maintains sovereignty.

    Today, the region has come into excessive international focus for several reasons. Despite China’s colossal stature (being geographically, economically and politically the largest country in the region) and continuous muscle flexing, there has been an increasing determination on the part of other claimant countries not to dilute their respective stands. Further, all claimants to the SCS have been expanding their military and law enforcement capabilities. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, have taken to an increasingly confrontational posture towards China. Illustrative of this was the open clash between China and the Philippines over who owns islands in the South China Sea at the ASEAN summit held in Phnomh Penh in November 2012. Similarly, the summit held earlier this year in July broke up acrimoniously and without a joint communiqué, with China facing accusations of using its clout to force the host Cambodia to keep the territorial issue off the agenda.

    It is this increasingly assertive posture of the South-East Asian claimants along with the rise of China as a global power that is intent on modernising its military capabilities that has left the United States comparatively uneasy. This is the underlying reason for its re-assertion of its strategic interests in the region, best encapsulated in the ‘Asia pivot’ policy. The United States has stated that nothing in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or state practice negates the right of military forces of nations to conduct military activities in the EEZs without notice to or consent of coastal states.7 China insists that any military reconnaissance activity undertaken without prior notification and without permission of the coastal state violates Chinese domestic law and international law and has routinely intercepted US reconnaissance missions, which has only served to heighten tensions in the region.8 In July 2012, the Obama administration, while noting that the United States did not have any claim on the South China Sea, more or less vocally backed the ASEAN claimants' territorial claims and went to the extent of saying that freedom of navigation and a resolution of claims accepted by all nations was a US "national interest."9

    In addition, the United States has upped its assistance to mainland Southeast Asia, announcing $50 million in new funding for the Lower Mekong Initiative. Its regional partners such as the Philippines have been rapidly buying up arms, while at the same time China and most of the Southeast Asian claimants of portions of the sea (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) have been ramping up rhetoric about their claims and increasingly sending naval and "civilian" fishing boats into the sea to test their adversaries' positions.10

    On 29 November 2012, Reuters reported, citing Vietnam's government and state media, that Hanoi has finalised its decision to deploy civilian-led patrols, supplemented by marine police and a border force from 25 January 2013 to stop foreign vessels that violate fishing laws within Vietnam's waters.11 About a week later, China asked Vietnam to immediately stop its unilateral oil exploration in the disputed areas in the South China Sea and not to harass Chinese fishing boats. In another incident, the Deputy Head of PetroVietnam's Search and Exploration Division, Pham Viet Dung, confirmed on 3 December that Chinese fishing boats (numbered 16025 and 16028) had cut the seismic cables of the ship Binh Minh 02, which had been attempting to carry out a seismic survey on the Vietnamese continental shelf around the Bac Bo (Tonkin) Gulf. This was followed by another statement by PetroVietnam's CEO, Do Van Hau, stating that “China cut the cables by accident"12 in contrast to what occurred in May 2011 when three Chinese ships had cut the cables of Binh Minh 02 while it was carrying out an exploratory mission.13 Nevertheless, while Chinese officials assert China's commitment to peaceful bilateral negotiations, its activities in the waters demonstrates the opposite. In the most recent verbal encounter, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei clarified that China opposed "any unilateral energy exploration” in the South China Sea and hoped that relevant countries respected "China's sovereignty and national interests". This was in response to a media statement by Admiral D.K. Joshi that the Indian Navy was prepared to protect its interests and deploy its forces in these contested waters.14 What continues to stand out from the Chinese foreign ministry statement is China's resolute belief in its territorial rights over the SCS.

    Tensions in the region have additionally escalated due to two recent changes in Chinese policy. These changes - the issue of new e-passports displaying a disputed map of the South China Sea and new provincial regulations announced by China's Hainan province (which administers the sea) appearing to give Chinese maritime authorities broad discretion to board or detain foreign vessels operating in what China claims are its own waters - have left China’s neighbours feeling more than a bit uneasy. Referring to the latter, Wu Shicun, the Director General of the Foreign Affairs Office of Hainan province, said that Chinese ships would be allowed to search and repel foreign ships only if they were engaged in, what he vaguely called, 'illegal activities' and only if the ships were within the 12-nautical-mile zone surrounding islands that China lays claim to. Wu further elaborated that the new regulations applied to “all the land features inside the nine-dash line and adjacent waters". This nine-dash line refers to a map that China drew up in the late 1940s, which demarcates its territorial claims - about 80 per cent of the South China Sea and includes all of the hundreds of islands scattered across the sea, and their surrounding waters, including islands claimed by several other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. In response, the Vietnamese province of Hue recently opened the "Borders and islands of Vietnam" exhibition to publicise materials and exhibits confirming Vietnam's sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel Island) and Truong Sa (Spratly Islands). It all seems to be a case of what has been termed as a case of "the devil in the deep blue detail".15

    China is at a unique junction in the present world scenario. Being a global power with a developing nation's problems, the new Chinese leadership face the need for a crucial follow-up to Deng Xiaoping's revolutionary reforms. And with the reality of it being the second largest economy as well as a developing nation, China has to pursue a tactical game of strengthening its interconnectedness with the global economy and comity of nations while at the same time pursuing its strategic interests. Being the world's second largest economy, China's rising energy needs compel it to be more assertive around its ¬borders. One Chinese estimate, according to the US Energy Information Administration, puts the SCS’s natural gas reserves at 2,000 trillion cubic feet, which would be enough to meet China’s gas needs for more than 400 years based on 2011 consumption levels, although actually recoverable resources could be lower.16

    Moreover, while China may have unconsciously risen to becoming a world number two, the latter half of the 2000’s has seen it grow steadfastly into that role. Ambitious infrastructure projects, tenacious displays of cultural brilliance such as during the Beijing Olympics, strategic manoeuvring in its neighbourhood and a steadfast commitment to being bigger and better at everything presents the picture of a nation no longer shy of its powerhouse tag, irrespective of its official denials and occasional rhetoric of 'peaceful rise and co-existence'. Nothing illustrates such national confidence and ambition better than its strengthening of its military capabilities. China’s maritime tactics in the SCS, marked by a mixture of aggressive moves and quick retreats, are characteristic power moves that have always succeeded in sending the message of offensive capability and expected outcomes.

    However, what makes the South China Sea more compelling is its global strategic significance both in terms of trade and energy, which has given rise to the strategic presence of a dangerous number of actors cast in multiple roles. For India, a Sino-US strategic game assumes importance with regard to freedom of navigation in the SCS. The historic US naval presence has long been accepted by China as a given, yet, with its rising power and fearless ambition, China’s passive aggressive moves may escalate a small conflict even if that is not the intention of its leadership.