Analyzing the tension prevalent in the South China Sea

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“China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are totally able to safeguard well the peace and stability of South China Sea,”

The statement came during the recent ASEAN Regional Forum in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, from the office of the foreign minister of People’s Republic of China, Wang Yi in immediate response to the so-called tense situation propagated by some countries over the South China Sea. But does this statement depict the exact situation of the tensions prevalent in South China Sea? Well, most political thinkers will term it as a pall on the deeply concerning issues that grip the long disputed area. But, before critically examining the whole issue, let me give you a brief of what exactly are the tensions that exist in one of the most crucial shipping routes of the world, The South China Sea.

The Dispute

The territorial dispute on who has the sovereign authority on which part of the South China Sea involves various countries including People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Philippines among others. The areas under dispute include the Spratly and the Paracel islands, Maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Tokin and the waters near Indonesian Natuna Islands.

Long claimed as their own territory, People’s Republic of China arrogates its own order on most of the area of the South China Sea. In fact, citing various historical instances, China in 2009 also submitted a map to the United Nations which included the 9 dash line thereby claiming most of the regions of the South China Sea. This and other previous activities of China concerning the area has led to prolonged and increased tensions among the concerning countries sometimes even resulting in a war like situation.

Most of the dispute lies due to the speculated huge reserves of resources beneath the Sea. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimated that the South China Sea might contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil. However, many other sources cite the number to be much smaller, probably at around a billion tons of crude oil. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated discovered and undiscovered oil reserves in South China Sea at 28 billion barrels, as opposed to the Chinese figure of 213 billion barrels. The same EIA report also pointed to a wide variety of natural gas resource estimations, ranging from 900 trillion cubic feet (25.5 trillion cubic meters) to 2 quadrillion cubic feet (56.6 trillion cubic meters), likely located in the contested Reed Bank.

Foreign Intervention

A hawk’s eye would never miss a place presenting a huge interest. Well! So is the case with the dispute over the South China Sea. Not directly alleging any country’s efforts to instigate the tensions, I would like to point out that the region is not immune to foreign interventions which have with time, only increased. The country which plays a very crucial role here or in fact in most of the disputed areas of the world is The United States of America. Today, if tensions have only increased, or so China claims is because of the US’ intervention in the area. De facto, in recent times, the present Obama Government has not only worked to strengthen ties with ASEAN, but has also ensured better relations with individual countries like Myanmar. Security Cooperation with Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia has only added to the cause.

The vulnerability of a possible conflict, if not armed then through a dialogue also surfaced when India’s amphibious assault vessel INS Airavat, en-route Vietnam on a friendly visit, was contacted by a party claiming itself to be Chinese Navy. The so called contact was made to warn the vessel of entering into the Chinese waters. The Indian Navy though later clarified that “there was no confrontation involving the INS Airavat.”

Another diplomatic confrontation resurfaced in 2011 when India’s state run Oil and Natural gas Corporation (ONGC) tied up with PetroVietnam after accepting the country’s offer to explore oil in certain blocks of the South China Sea. As soon as the news broke out, the foreign ministry of China issued a statement indirectly objecting to a possible future Indian presence in South China Sea.

Peace Efforts

While most peace efforts have been marred due to prolonged diplomatic confrontation through dialogue, countries directly and indirectly involved in the dispute are constantly trying to solve the issue. Though, not enough has been done until now so as to put a rest to this long standing issue. The ASEAN summit of July 2012 did attempt to address the issue but the efforts went down the drain when the summit ended without producing a communiqué.

Experts however point out that the joint management of resources is the best way to alleviate the peace process in the area. For a start, China and Vietnam have identified and regulated certain common fishing zones in the Tonkin Gulf though what remains the important issue is that of regulation and area allocation of huge oil reserves lying in the area.


The Road Ahead

The South China Sea continues to be a region of strategic importance for not only the countries surrounding the area but also the ones indirectly involved in the concerning disputes. Moreover, with the coming of age of industrial revolution in Asia, the sea passage is one of the most used in the entire world and is constantly becoming an area of increased activity. What lies ahead is a process of cooperation in which People’s Republic of China will have a crucial role to play since it is already being cited by most experts as the next superpower of the expected new international order in a multi-polar world.

-Brij Pahwa


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