Just as the western powers scramble and contest for the energy resources of Libya, yet another tussle appears to be developing in the South China Sea. In this huge area covering nearly 3.5 million square kilometres, countries such as China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are in serious contention. At stake are huge under water oil reserves estimated at 28 billion barrels and nearly 20 t/cm of natural gas reserves, with the latter reportedly having the potential to rival the gas reserves of Qatar. In addition the South China Sea is the main artery for significant maritime shipping. The main East Asian economic power houses China, Japan and South Korea are heavily dependent on the safety and security of the South China Sea- lanes. The main island groups in the South China Sea are the Spratly and Parcel islands, together with thousands of shoals and reefs are mostly uninhabited. There are no indigenous people living in these islands.
Prior to the Second World War France claimed ownership of the islands as the occupier of Indo-China, but during the Second World War these rights were taken over by Japan. After Japan’s defeat in the war, the Republic of China [now in Taiwan] claimed ownership and thereafter the newly formed People’s Republic as also the Republic of Vietnam based on Saigon. In 1958 the People’s Republic of China issued a notification declaring both the island groups, as also most of the area of the South China Sea, as constituting the territorial waters of China and also declaring a 12- mile territorial water limit. Soon thereafter on 14th September 1958 the then North Vietnamese [DRVN] Premier Pham Van Dong wrote a letter to the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai stating that the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam ’respects this decision’ of the Chinese government. Premier Pham Van Dong’s letter was published in the Vietnamese newspaper Nhan Dan on 22nd September 1958!
The Philippines too contests China’s claims and even refuses to recognise this area as the South China Sea, instead referring to it as the ’West Philippines Sea’. Similarly the present unified Vietnamese government too contests China’s claims, adding that in 1958 the then South Vietnamese government had not given up its claims and that this area was actually under the latter’s jurisdiction. Malaysia and Brunei both base their claims on their own interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines’ rest their case on both UNCLOS and on geographical proximity. Presently various islands in the chain are under the military control of the disputants’ armed forces, with China occupying the Paracel islands and the Philippines and Vietnam maintaining permanent structures on certain other islets.
Be that as it may, both China and other ASEAN governments had in 2002 agreed to a declaration outlining the ’conduct of parties in the South China Sea’. The aim was to better manage the tensions arising out of the dispute. China would ideally like to negotiate with each of the contending parties on a bilateral basis, whereas the others are keen to do so on a collective basis. Nevertheless even after such a lapse of time little forward movement seems to have taken place. On the other hand, China has adopted an aggressive posture, often cutting cables of survey ships and harassing foreign ships engaged in oil drilling.
In the nine years that have elapsed since ASEAN and China signed the ’Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’, the parties are still struggling to agree on a common set of guidelines to implement cooperative confidence-building measures (CBM). There are faults on both sides; China insists on a bilateral process, but there are also divisions within ASEAN as to the best way to proceed. At a recent meeting in the Philippines to discuss a unified and a common ASEAN position, both Laos and Cambodia simply did not turn up, indicating that ASEAN unity was still elusive.
The Global Times, a newspaper reflecting the views of the Chinese authorities, stated that for countries in ASEAN trying to ’isolate’ China was ’pure nationalist fantasy’ and authoritatively stated that there was ’no collective will to unite and confront China.’ The paper warned that China ’has many more cards to play’ and on significant issues concerning Chinese territory and sovereignty, ’China will not scale back its claims and submit to external pressure.’
There is no doubt that most ASEAN countries are expecting that the United States will eventually bail them out. The only military power that can challenge and prevent China from riding rough shod over the claims of some ASEAN countries in this region is the US. The US 7th Fleet is still a very potent fighting force armed with nuclear weapons and has significant assets in the region. However at present the US is deeply beset with economic problems at home. US public debt which was US $ 6.4 trillion or about 60% of its GDP in 2008 has shot up to US $ 14.2 trillion or about 98% of its GDP in 2011. The US now ranks 3rd on the debt to GDP ratio, with only Japan and Italy faring worse. In addition, the US armed forces are unduly over extended both in Iraq and Afghanistan where they are struggling to bring to a conclusion their involvement.
It was perhaps for these reasons that the US declined to participate on the ground with its close NATO allies, Britain and France when they decided to intervene militarily in Libya. The Chinese are aware of the difficulties that the US faces, particularly as they also are the largest holders of US foreign debt. Maybe the Chinese feel that as they flex their muscles in the South China Sea area, there will be no major opposition unless of course if the situation really gets out of hand.
It is in such a situation that India seems to be getting involved with the ONGC determined to prospect for oil in the disputed Vietnamese oil blocks. Policy planners in India would do well to take a second look!
Views are those of the author
* The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org