South China Sea disputes rooted in resource competition

May 26, 2012 12:00 AM

by Chu Hao

The competition for resources, the development of international marine laws and the contest for strategic locations are behind the South China Sea territorial disputes.
In recent years, the US has played an increasingly important role in the issue.

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The strategic location of the region plays an important part in South China Sea disputes. [Xinhua]

South China Sea disputes are rooted in the pursuit of natural resources
The South China Sea, considered by many as “the second Persian Gulf,” boasts energy reserves of more than 20 bn tons of oil and gas, in addition to rich mineral and marine life resources.
In recent years, with the increasing demand for energy as economies grow and global oil prices rise, some countries around the South China Sea region have sped up the exploitation of oil and gas in the resourceful area. They have tried every means to claim their so-called sovereignty in this region and signed agreements for joint development of resources with countries outside the region.

South China Sea disputes rise as contemporary international marine law develops
Since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was issued in 1982, some countries unilaterally claimed 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and delimited the continental shelf in the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia laid claims one after another to all or part of the Nansha Islands while speeding up oil and gas drilling in the region.
All these claims and exploitation bred disputes between China (including Taiwan region) and other neighbouring countries, namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, on island sovereignty and maritime demarcation.

The strategic location of the region plays an important part in South China Sea disputes
The South China Sea region is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, through which pass more than half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage, one third of global marine trade volume and half of energy supplies to Northeast Asia, including 80 % of oil traffic to Japan, South Korea and China's Taiwan region.
From a military perspective, whoever occupies the islands in the South China Sea would directly or indirectly take control of most seaways through the Strait of Malacca as well as those from West Asia, Africa and Europe to East Asia.

Since the end of the cold war, the South China Sea region has become increasingly important in geopolitics and marine traffic. With the newfound resources and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea going into effect, some Southeast Asian countries are laying further claims to the islands, the EEZ and the continental shelf in the South China Sea.
The escalation of the disputes between China and Southeast Asian neighbours on island sovereignty and maritime demarcation has received increased attention from ASEAN and western countries including the US and Japan, making the South China Sea issue a security focus in the international community.

The global financial crisis hit Southeast Asia in 2008, raising living cost and lowering living standards there. To stop the economic crisis turning into social unrest, some neighbouring countries chose to divert the domestic dissatisfaction by hyping the so-called “China threat” and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The financial crisis also struck a heavy blow at the export-oriented economy of most Southeast Asian countries, which depends heavily on the international economic environment. With the unceasingly rising global oil prices, some countries have turned to count on the South China Sea exploitation for energy supplies.

The rapid rise of China has encouraged a school of thought among Southeast Asian countries to guard against the growing big power. Since China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010, those countries began seeking to ride China’s momentum to develop their economy.
Meanwhile, they feared that a thriving China would seek regional or global hegemony. Some international media took the opportunity to incite Southeast Asian countries to confront China.

In recent years, the US has played an increasingly important role in the South China Sea disputes
In 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the country would return its attention to Southeast Asia.
As some dispute-involved countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, actively sought support from major international powers, the US has gradually switched more of its marine strategic focus to East Asia, challenging China for sea power and dominance in Southeast Asia.

After the assertion of a national interest in the South China Sea disputes in 2010, the US has sped up deployments of its naval units and expanded its military base in Guam, strengthening supervision over East Asian waters.
US Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who vowed to enhance military strength in Asia-Pacific region after taking office, stressed the importance of Southeast Asia in US regional security policies at the annual ASEAN defence ministerial meeting in October, 2011.

The author is a researcher in Southeast Asia studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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