Briefing: The South China Sea Dispute

So this map looks ugly:


Below, I’ve tried to cover the main issues over the South China Sea as briefly and directly as I can. This is essentially a summary of the resources listed at the bottom of this article.

Generally, what’s at stake?

Huge reserves of shale gas and oil, a considerable economic advantage to whoever owns them. CFR writes:

According to the World Bank, the South China Sea holds proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which offer tremendous economic opportunity for smaller nations like Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and energy security for China’s large, growing economy.

There are 1.5 billion people in the region, the South China Sea and its fisheries providing jobs and food for many of them. Furthermore, fishery depletion in coastal waters due to unsustainable fishing has led to fishermen going further out into sea, especially for rarer and more expensive fish.

The South China Sea is by far the busiest maritime territory when it comes to oil tanker traffic, some estimates with 50% of all traffic going through the Sea. The interests of Japan, the US and the EU are all affected by this.

What’s preventing progress on the issue?

The major impasse is the disparity between China’s perception of the sovereignty of the South China Sea and the long-time consensus of major maritime states.

China, as is its practice of dealing with foreigners (or “barbarians” historically) since its dynastic period, prefers to negotiate bilaterally when it comes to conflicts like these. Mediated or multilateral diplomacy would weaken its position considerably, something that both Vietnam and the Philippines recognise as they seek to internationalise the issue. A UN-based solution is unlikely.

Compromise is almost impossible in situations where there are military standoffs between navies, as seen by this April’s military standoff between the Phillipines and China. MIlitarisation – increased arms trade and military buildups – by China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines contributes to the problem. The International Crisis Group has called this nothing short of an arms race.

Furthermore, ASEAN doesn’t include China as a voting member, and there is nothing like NATO or the EU around the South China Sea. Even with ASEAN the ICG notes, “differences in the value each member places on their relations with China, have prevented ASEAN from coming to a consensus on the issue.”

The Exclusive Economic Zones established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – dictating what maritime territory can be used by each state – is unlikely to be accepted by any party. If that is to be the normative standard for any negotiation, I wouldn’t be optimistic.

There isn’t an indigenous population living in the disputed areas so historical claims are harder to make, despite China’s efforts to do so.

The fact that the Philippines has a billion dollar military deal with the US threatens China’s regional hegemony. In the larger context, the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, including its increased military presence, can be seen as directly confronting Chinese strategic ambition in the region.

In each nation involved there are strong domestic opinions on the South China Sea, discouraging compromise in territorial claims. China’s fervour over the Diaoyu Islands, though not in the South China Sea, and recently Vietnam’s allowance of rare street protests outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi are prime examples.

Recent Events

  • In late 2012 Beijing issued a new passport (Reuters) including a map with its territorial claims
  • “In late May, Chinese patrol boats slashed a research cable laid by a Vietnamese seismic survey ship only 75 miles from the Vietnamese coast. Just a few weeks later, Chinese patrols rammed into a Vietnamese energy exploration vessel. In response, both Vietnam and China have stepped up military activities in the sea, engaging in live fire drills and large-scale naval exercises, as well as a diplomatic war of words.” – The International Crisis Group
  • In early June, China and Vietnam reaffirmed the China-ASEAN Declaration of Conduct (DOC), which rejects the use of force in the South China Sea, though it is far from certain that this will happen on the ground.
  • This month, the Philippines has said it is hoping for a “modus vivendi” with China and seeks “tranquility” in China relations while it, at the same time, has acquired a vessel from France for the South China Sea – South China Morning Post


Preventing at all costs military engagement and escalation, however minor, would help calm an already volatile situation.

Economic integration and joint management of resources, as has been done in the Tonkin Bay between Vietnam and China but failed to occur in a joint seismic survey between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, has been seen widely as a way to diffuse tension and work towards a lasting agreement.

The Rocky Times Ahead in South China Sea by the International Crisis Group provides specific and comprehensive recommendations:

If the region wants to avoid locking into a dangerous game of clashes, grand rhetorical gestures are not enough. Countries must match words with action and suspend patrol activities in disputed areas until a true return to the DOC can be realized. In particular, China must clarify its sweeping and ambiguous territorial claims in the region, and ground these claims in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Joint exercises between countries in the South China Sea should be expanded. And all parties should agree to specific steps to help actors on the ground ease tensions in the event of a clash. If this chance to set a constructive path forward is not taken, further clashes in the South China Sea may well escalate into open conflict.

Some Resources


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