By Richard Cronin – Incidents at sea in mid-2011 involving Chinese maritime patrol vessels and geological survey ships deployed by Vietnam have sharply ratcheted up long-standing tensions over conflicting maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. Reports attribute incidents of deliberate cable and net cutting, and the seizure of fishing boats and catches to armed vessels of Chinese provinces nearby and the central government’s Maritime Safety Administration. Recently China’s relations with the Philippines also have been roiled over surveillance and construction activities aboard ships of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and reports that China planned to move a sophisticated drilling rig into part of the vast 425,000 square kilometer Spratly archipelago that is claimed by Manila. All of these incidents have been well within the protesting countries’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that are permitted under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Although the United States has long stated that it takes no position on the conflicting claims, Beijing has interpreted statements by US officials in support of UNCLOS principles for determining maritime territorial claims, calls for restraint by all parties, and recent naval exercises with the Vietnamese and Philippines navies as taking sides. On July 11, 2011, during an official visit to PLA headquarters by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, China’s top military leader bluntly criticized the timing of small-scale US naval exercises with the Philippines navy a few days before his arrival and with the Vietnamese navy during the visit. Such exercises are not new — the ones with the Philippines are held annually — but Chen called the timing “inappropriate.” US-China relations have been strained by Chinese actions against US naval activities in international waters off China’s coast, including dangerous maneuvers by Chinese fishing boats and patrol craft with a US Navy surveillance ship in March 2009, and US Navy actions to assert its rights in both the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. Chen’s complaints about the exercises with the Vietnamese Navy underscore China’s concern about deepening security ties between the United States and Vietnam.
The maritime territorial disputes are long-standing: during the past two years a kind of “perfect storm” of elevated tensions has resulted from rising oil and gas prices, China’s growing assertiveness and fast increasing military capabilities, and a May 2009 deadline for littoral states to register claims for extending their continental shelves beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZs under UNCLOS.
UNCLOS establishes a legal basis for joint development of resources pending the final resolution of disputes. For China’s neighbors, such ventures are non-starters as a result of China’s assertion of “indisputable sovereignty” over about 80 percent of the South China Sea, including the Paracels and Spratly chains, as “historical waters.” China has marked its claim by publishing a map showing a “nine-dashed” or “U-shaped” line that extends well into the 200 nautical mile EEZs of its neighbors.
For instance, China has claimed and even tried to drill near Vietnam’s southernmost coast, more than 1,000 miles from its own mainland and Hainan Island. However, joint development of this area, if it were to take place, would be on Vietnam’s rightful EEZ because under UNCLOS principles, small isles and rocks cannot generate their own EEZ.
The last minute submissions of most countries’ claims in 2009 highlighted and hardened existing positions, even though the requirement explicitly states that registered claims are made without prejudice to existing maritime territorial disputes or extensions of the continental shelves of states on the other side of a body of water. China did not submit a claim, but rather two notes to the UN Secretary-General calling for the rejection of the Vietnamese and Malaysian-Vietnamese submissions as violations of its sovereignty. (For the first time China officially put forward a map showing the nine-dashed line as an annex to both notes.)
The motivations for China and its neighbors to assert or defend their maritime territorial claims are tangible. The main motivation is access to undersea oil and gas resources. Because the territorial disputes have prevented exploration, the actual value of the undersea hydrocarbons — of which some 60-70 percent are thought to be in the form of natural gas — vary wildly. One Chinese estimate suggests potential oil resources as high as 213 billion barrels of oil (bbl) — a veritable new Persian Gulf — while a mid-1990s estimate by the US Geological Survey estimated the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the SCS at 28 billion bbl. In fact, while nobody knows how valuable these resources may be, every claimant has high expectations.
Of even more immediate relevance, the South China Sea is home to large and highly coveted fish populations. Chinese patrol boats have increasingly harassed or seized fishing boats operating in the contested area. Vietnam and other countries have sometimes done the same, but China now has far more naval and civilian patrol capability which it sometimes deploys aggressively to support of its perceived interests.
Regarding its island claims, China finds itself in a weak position under international maritime law which requires “continuous and effective acts of occupation.” By one recent account Vietnam occupies 23 islands and reefs in the Spratlys compared to nine by the Philippines, seven by Malaysia, one by Taiwan, and only seven, all of them reefs that cannot support normal habitation, by China.
The presumed political limits on China’s flexibility also argue strongly against compromise. First, the Chinese government and population are broadly seized with the feeling that China was taken advantage of by the western colonial powers in the 19th Century and that the UNCLOS bears US fingerprints. Second, the Chinese PLA leadership appears to equate asserting Chinese claims forcefully as in keeping with its growing military capabilities and rising power status. Some analysts also see China’s greater assertiveness as shaped in part by Communist Party politics leading up to the October 2012 Party Congress. China’s prevailing mercantilist policy of seeking to acquire, develop, and lock up resources rather than relying on international markets also limits its willingness or ability to reduce the extent of its claims.
That said, none of the claimants can develop resources easily in the contested zones alone. In general, the multinational oil and gas companies are more technically capable than national companies, but are also the most sensitive to political, economic and legal risk. China has successfully prevented multinational oil and gas companies from exploiting blocks offered by Vietnam but Vietnamese naval forces have also escorted Chinese survey ships out of waters that it claims.
With oil demand in China and Southeast Asia expected to double by 2025, the presumed subsea deposits in the disputed areas will become increasingly attractive. With its rising naval power China could, in theory, enforce its claims despite the complaints of its neighbors, but only at serious risk to other important equities, starting with the desire not to unite its neighbors against it. The commitment of the United States not to be pushed out of the South China Sea also has a deterrent effect, even though China rails against what it sees as a growing US effort to contain China and deny it the fruits of its rising power status.
The actual resolution of the South China disputes is a long term proposition, if at all, that will have to await either a more harmonious region, at best, or a successfully hegemonic China, at worst. For the near term, the United States can best contribute to peace and multilateral cooperation for sustainable resources management and development by maintaining the wherewithal to carry out a carefully modulated policy of insisting on US maritime rights, supporting multilateral regional institutions — especially ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) — and positively engaging China and its neighbors without taking sides in the disputes.