The Philippines is incensed about an incident on March 2nd when, it says, two Chinese patrol boats threatened to ram a ship conducting a survey at Reed Bank, off its island of Palawan. On March 4th Vietnam also protested to China, about military exercises in waters it claims. Most probably these tiffs will blow over, as usual, long before anybody gets hurt. Yet the risks are mounting that a random incident in a bewildering array of quarrels may escalate into conflict, if only because no prospect exists of a settlement.
That is partly because the sea is entangled in so many separate disputes. China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam war. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim. The same three parties also contest the Spratly archipelago, to the south. But in the south Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have partial claims.
Some of these arguments might in theory be solvable under the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 2009, for example, Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission, showing where they thought their claims lay, based on their continental shelves. China, however, objected to that submission and tabled its own map, with nine dotted lines outlining its claim. Joined up, these lines give China almost the whole sea. There seems no basis for this in UNCLOS. But China points to a map in use since the Republic of China published it during the Chinese civil war in the 1940s and says that, until quite recently, nobody minded. Indonesia, in turn, objected to China’s objection, since its claim encroached on Indonesian waters, too.
According to American officials, China last year began talking of its claims in the South China Sea as a “core” national interest, which would put it on a par with Tibet and Taiwan. In return, America has proclaimed its own “national interest”, citing the importance of the freedom of navigation and of overflight. Neither is under immediate threat. China and America, however, have long disagreed about whether America’s armed forces have the right to conduct manoeuvres within other countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and to spy on them even from inside their (12-mile) territorial waters. Two years ago America complained when Chinese vessels harassed a surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, in the South China Sea south of the Chinese island-province of Hainan. America’s vociferous involvement, notably at a regional security forum in Hanoi last July, was welcomed at the time by most of the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China, though, fumed at America’s unrealistic offer of “mediation”.
Yet another dispute divides China and ASEAN. These two parties reached a common “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” (DoC) in 2002 in an attempt to minimise the risk of conflict. But efforts to turn this into a formal and binding code have gone nowhere. China argues that ASEAN has no role in territorial issues. It prefers to pick off rival claimants one by one. ASEAN argues that its own charter obliges members to consult, as they do before each working group on the code of conduct, the next one of which is due soon. Another difficulty for the DoC is that Taiwan is not a party. Though Taiwan occupies only one Spratly islet, it is the biggest, now boasting a long runway. Optimists argue that the DoC has at least helped keep tensions down. Indeed, since 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed near the Spratlys, there have been no serious armed flare-ups. Tension rose in 1995, when China was found to have built on Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines. Fishermen are sometimes locked up for encroaching on another country’s claim. But the risk of escalation into conflict has seemed limited.
It is even possible to claim that the “self-restraint” the DoC demands is being observed. Since 2002 no uninhabited islands or rocks have been occupied. But maybe none of those left is big enough, and on those that were already occupied, building has continued. Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a think-tank in Manila, has an impressive collection of photographs of South China Sea structures. On Mischief Reef, for example, China has built a “fisherman’s shelter” in the form of a three-storey concrete fortress, surrounded by five octagonal structures, also in concrete.
Such digging-in, accompanied by frenetic military modernisation by most of the claimants, is one reason to worry that the stakes in the South China Sea are becoming bigger. Another is China’s proclivity for muscle-flexing. South-East Asia has seen how China is ready to bully Japan over contested waters in the sea between them. Just this week Japan lodged a formal protest after a Chinese helicopter flew close to one of its ships. That the South China Sea has become a focus of American determination to remain an Asian power adds yet another source of tension.
Moreover, the sea offers fishing bounty and is a vital shipping route for a big chunk of world trade. It has also, particularly around the Spratlys, long been believed to be rich in hydrocarbons. As time goes by, that belief grows. For example, the Sampaguita gasfield near Reed Bank is estimated to hold at least 3.4 trillion cubic feet (85 billion cubic metres) and perhaps as much as 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Excerpts, Banyan: Carps among the Spratlys, Economist, Mar. 12, 2011, at 51