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Strategic Interests in the South China Sea

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Strategic InterestThe South China Sea (or as the Philippine government has been wont to call recently, the West Philippine Sea) is situated between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. It covers an area of 3.4 million square kilometers made up of scattered major island groups namely the Paracels, the Spratlys, Pratas Reef, Tseng-Mu Reef, Macclesfield Bank, and Scarborough Shoal. These islands are wholly or partially claimed by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

China, Taiwan, and Vietnam have expansive claims in the region. On the other hand, The Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei only claim small groups of islands and islets within the major island groups in the South China Sea. The Philippines claims the western portion of the Spratly Islands, the Kalayaan Island Group.

Meanwhile, countries such as China and Taiwan claim the entire region and all the groups of islands within it. This overlapping of sovereignty has caused problems for the members of the Asean as well as their biggest and closest superpower neighbor, China.

But why is the South China Sea so hotly contested and why has the situation gone so far as to involve naval skirmishes? There are three main reasons: the potential for oil deposits and natural gas; the rich fishing grounds; and the strategic importance as a Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC) for both claimant and non-claimant countries.

With so much at stake, disputes and confrontations over overlapping claims have arisen. And the filing of diplomatic protests have lately turned into naval confrontations and clashes.

Exploration for oil in the South China Sea began in 1973 amid the oil crisis of the 1970s. Claimant countries explored for oil unilaterally through joint venture as well as with other non-claimant and private corporations. Recent political developments in the Middle East have raised concerns about the availability of oil to power the economic development and modernization of Asia Pacific states.

Earlier this year, Shanghai overtook Tokyo as the second biggest economy in the world, increasing the demand for energy to sustain its development. Unfortunately, with the massive social unrest in the Middle East and the reality of the rapidly disappearing sources of fossil fuels and oil reserves, the world seeks alternatives for the near future.

Recent trends in the search for alternative methods of energy include renewable forms such as wind, solar and, the most common, geothermal. While countries like the US and Spain have reached great strides in developing these forms of energy (especially solar), China’s massive production and export of solar panels is mostly supplemental.

It would be very difficult and expensive to maintain standalone solar energy power plants. The development of bio-gas has shown that there would have to be huge sacrifices in the production of food. Nuclear energy, seen as the most promising, has a scary downside, as evidenced by the recent earthquake in northern Japan.

These concerns for alternative sources of energy have prompted East Asian and Southeast Asian states to turn to the sea for their energy needs. Ultimately, drilling for oil in offshore areas is the expected trend of the future.

It is said that the South China Sea possesses a huge amount of oil and contains around four proven discoveries of oil and gas, which include the Sabah basin (Brunei/Malaysia), Nam Camson Basin (Vietnam), Sarawak Basin (Indonesia), and Malampaya (Philippines).

It has been estimated that the Seas of East Asia, the South China Sea, and the archipelagic states of Southeast Asia possess billion barrels of oil as well as natural gas in the trillions of cubic feet. Such a huge potential energy resource would naturally cause a mad scramble for resources—and a powder keg for greater conflict.

In 2008, Dr Carpenter of the Smithsonian Institute declared the waters of the Philippines (specifically the areas of the Verde Passage, Puerto Galera, Mindoro, and Batangas) as the center of global marine biodiversity. This extends all the way to the areas of the South China Sea and to the south, Indonesia and Malaysia creating an interconnectivity of coral reefs, sea grass, and mangrove forests. This interconnectivity equates to high biodiversity of marine species and increased fish productivity, which in turn provides a good source of protein and a life support system for surrounding nations.

The area of the South China Sea is common fishing ground for all claimants. All have historically used the area for fishing expeditions. China, as basis for its claims, has used history to argue that the South China Sea is China’s “southern lake” and that Chinese fishermen have always launched expeditions there.

The South China Sea is also known as a migration path and breeding ground for yellow fin tuna and is considered one of the most productive areas for commercial fishing. It constitutes around 8% of the world’s total commercial fishing output. The various seas in the area produce an annual yield of seven million tons of fish with an estimated value of US$6.5 billion, while the waters between Sabah and Palawan are said to produce 10,000 tons of marine products.

For the Philippines, the fishing industry is vital for both economic growth and national security. It accounts for 5% of GNP and around five million Filipinos are fishermen. No surprise as Filipinos consume some 40 kilograms of fish, per person, per year.

Overlapping fishing grounds have caused tension among fishermen of claimant states and their respective governments. Cases of encroachment, firing of warning shots, and pursuit operations are common. Volatile situations, such as the sinking of vessels, have occurred. China, Vietnam, and the Philippines have traded diplomatic protests over encroachment and the overextension of fishing boundaries.

During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army used the Spratlys in the South China Sea as a staging point for launching successful attacks in Southeast Asia. This proves the military and strategic importance of the South China Sea and that any country that controls the region has a tactical advantage for any occupying force. Economically, the South China Sea is a crossroads for the world’s major oceans and an important SLOC.

It connects the Indian and the Pacific Oceans (also known as the East-West Route) and Australia and New Zealand to Northeast Asia (the North-South Route). It is also astride the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits considered as strategic choke points. Countries adjacent to these choke points are Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Some 2,700 ships pass through the Spratlys everyday. What’s more, 50% of Asia’s oil supplies and 80% of strategic goods transit the region. Around 66% of Japan’s oil requirements from the Middle East also pass through this area.

Since the decade that followed World War II and after the Japanese occupation of Itu Aba, an island in the Spratlys, claimant countries have exerted efforts to establish their claims through diplomacy, internationalization of the issue, and even by coercion. Claimant countries have asserted their rights of sovereignty by increasing maritime patrols and establishing military outposts in the bigger islands that they have occupied since the 1950s. From 1999–2000, nearly 1,650 troops of five claimant countries occupied at least 46 of the 51 land formations in the Spratlys.

While the Spratlys issue is widely regarded as a potential security flash point, it could also be a chance for the Asean and China to show their solidarity and commitment to peace and cooperation. Asean and China can strive to be a symbol of solidarity by using the unique, Asian way of conflict management and resolution.

The issue of sovereignty is a difficult subject to tackle and would most likely result in lots of ill feeling, ultra-nationalism and, worse, miscalculations and misunderstandings among claimant states. Understanding the huge economic potential of the South China Sea, it is in the best interest of concerned states to focus on increased multilateral cooperation and further confidence-building in the region. Claimant countries have expressed as much and all have signified the desire to not have tensions in the region escalate since it would be detrimental to the economic and strategic development of all.

Print ed: 08/11


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