Rising Geopolitical Tensions
The territorial dispute over the fossil fuel-rich South China Sea is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most pressing geopolitical issues. Tensions between China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are becoming increasingly strained as these countries compete for control over vital trade routes and fossil fuel reserves. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, about 80 percent of the world’s traded commodities pass through the South China Sea. Moreover, the U.S. Energy Information Agency has estimated that the South China Sea holds roughly 11 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. A 2012 study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey also estimated that the region may hold another 12 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 160 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas. Therefore, control over the South China Sea will have tremendous implications for global energy security.
Efforts to Convey Sovereignty
Covering an area of roughly 1.4 million square miles, the South China Sea stretches from the Straight of Malacca (the waterway connecting Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore with the Indian Ocean) to Taiwan. Within this region, there are hundreds of small and mostly uninhabited islands. While these islands hold almost no economic value themselves, the countries surrounding the South China Sea have been making bold efforts to assert their sovereignty over these islands to lay claim to the resources that are located beneath them. Each country in the region has established its own justification for why they should have legal ownership over some of the islands. However, from an international perspective, there are only two legal principles that would ensure that a country has legitimate ownership over some of the islands within the South China Sea.
The principle of effective occupation and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are the two international legal principles that have historically been used to resolve territorial disputes. The rule of effective occupation, which was first established during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, states that a foreign power may legally acquire rights over newly discovered coastal lands if a nation is able to clearly show that it is being effectively occupied by its citizens or infrastructure. Throughout the 20th century, the Canadian government attempted to convey sovereignty over the oil-rich Arctic by exploiting indigenous populations to maintain an effective occupation of the Arctic. In 1934, the Canadian government relocated twenty-two members of an indigenous community from Cape Dorset to Devon Island in the High Arctic (Mowat, 2002). Members of this indigenous community were forcibly transferred around different regions of the Arctic to solidify Canada’s ownership of the Arctic Archipelago and its oil resources.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is another international law that has been used to lay claim to fossil fuel resources. This international law was established through a series of United Nations meeting between 1973 and 1982. It outlines a comprehensive series of rights and responsibilities related to a nation’s ability to use the world’s oceans, facilitate economic activity, and extract natural resources. Similar to the effective occupation principle that has been used by the Canadian government in the Arctic, the nations of China, Russia, the United States, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland have been in a lengthy legal battle over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in an attempt to win the race for oil and gas in the Arctic. While the legal ramifications of oil and gas production in the Arctic have been heating up in recent years, it has not met the intense level of tensions that have been experienced in the South China Sea.
Chinese Fossil Fuel Demand
China’s massively increasing demand for fossil fuels has caused the country to initiate some alarming actions in order to secure the oil and gas resources within the South China Sea. As the world’s largest importer of fossil fuels, the Chinese government has become increasingly reliant on others to fuel its energy needs. Based on 2019 data, China has been importing just over ten million barrels of oil per day (Lee, 2019). Within the past year, China also surpassed Japan as the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas (Clemente, 2019). With conservative estimates suggesting that China’s natural gas demand will double in a few short years, the Chinese government has become progressively more worried about meeting energy needs and enduring future global energy shocks. Therefore, to ensure that the country is able to fuel economic development initiatives, China has been vigorously working to deter other countries from exploring for fossil fuels in the South China Sea.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that liquid fossil fuel consumption in Southeast Asia has been increasing at a yearly growth rate of about 2.6 percent (Ramkumar et al, 2020). While the demand for fossil fuels in Asia is projected to continue to grow in the future, the rate of new domestic supplies of oil and gas are projected to remain flat in Asia. Therefore, countries like China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among others, have been making claims to the fossil fuel reserves in the South China Sea. Although, China has been making the most aggressive attempts to secure the region for its own energy and national security interests. Through the militarization of the South China Sea, the government of China has been developing a series of island military bases to discourage other nations from laying claim to the region.
China’s Military Aggression
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has been tracking China’s efforts to establish military bases throughout the South China Sea. In addition to establishing military infrastructure on uninhabited islands and environmentally sensitive reefs, China has been physically building new islands throughout the region. Lighthouses, air force landing strips, radar tracking facilities, and massive military hangars are just a few examples of some of the infrastructure that China has been building throughout the South China Sea. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative also noted recently that China has started to construct missile shelters and underground tunnels on the artificial islands. Despite a 2002 agreement formed through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that no country would physically modify any features within the South China Sea, China has been blatantly disregarding this international agreement.
International policy experts say that China’s sweeping territorial claims over the South China Sea are unlawful. When faced with regulations such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Chinese officials have claimed that their ownership of the South China Sea is based on cultural heritage rather than international law. China has argued that their sovereignty claims predate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead, China has claimed that its own ancestors were the first to discover the islands within the South China Sea. China has publicly revealed maps dating back nearly two thousand years that show the islands within the South China Sea being identified by the ancient Han Dynasty. Although, even after displaying these claims, the international community continues to assert that China’s efforts to secure fossil fuels within the South China sea have undermined the rule of law.
Undermining International Laws
China’s brazen actions within the South China Sea have weakened international laws like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In addition to disregarding international laws and agreements, China has made aggressive moves to block some countries like the United States from conducting internationally protected freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The freedom of navigation principle states that it is an international right that ships bearing the flag of any sovereign nation shall not be prevented by other nations from navigating in open water outside of exclusive economic zones. While nations do not hold exclusive rights to conduct navigational operations without prior permission within the limits of an exclusive economic zone, sailing in international waters is protected by international law. With this in mind, a number of countries have made claims against China in recent years for making aggressive moves against foreign nationals sailing in international waters within the South China Sea.
Conflict with Vietnam and the Philippines
In early 2013, the Philippines opened an international case against China for violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The trial for this case was held by an arbitral tribunal within the United Nations. By July 2016, a ruling was made against China that clarified resource rights for the Philippines within a certain region of the South China Sea. As a result of collective international pressure, China has appeared to abide by this ruling with regards to a region of the South China Sea near the coast of the Philippines. However, only one year after this international ruling was made, China started to strengthen efforts to encroach other nations in the region by building artificial islands and stepping up operations to intimidate countries that were conducting freedom of navigation operations. In one such incident in 2018, hundreds of Chinese naval vessels and military personnel surrounded Thitu Island, which is the largest Philippines-occupied island in the region. While no physical shots were fired, the incident is representative of the aggressive military actions that China has been making in the region.
Vietnam has also been a main target of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. There is a long history of territorial conflicts between these two countries. In 1974, China and Vietnam held a fierce battle over control of the Paracels Islands. While no bloodshed has erupted in the South China Sea between these two nations since this battle, China has continued to make threats against Vietnam. In July 2017, Vietnam was forced to abandon a joint oil drilling project with a Spanish global energy company after China threatened military action. Moreover, China has also used pressure tactics to damage Vietnam’s fossil fuel industry. For example, China pressured international oil giants Conoco Phillips and BP to divest all fossil fuel infrastructure from Vietnam between 2008 and 2012 (Montgomery, 2018).
Addressing Geopolitical Tensions
The fossil fuel resources underneath the South China Sea represent an immense opportunity to alleviate concerns about future global energy needs. However, as geopolitical tensions continue to rise over claims to these energy resources, foreign policy experts warn that further escalation could result in international military action. According to the U.S. State Department, China’s actions have prevented international efforts to explore for and extract nearly $2.5 trillion worth of untapped fossil fuel reserves in the South China Sea (Mollman, 2019). Unless new international efforts are developed to counter China’s aggressive efforts to secure the region’s fossil fuel resources, the region will continue to experience threats to peace and security.
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