Red storm rising or storm in a teacup? The South China Sea island disputes

Posted on | juni 16, 2011 | 3 Comments

Protests in Vietnam against Chinese claims to Spratlys

In 1996 bestselling US author Tom Clancy (Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Sum of All Fears) wrote a novel entitled SSN which followed the mission of a US submarine in a fictional war between the United States and China over the Spratly islands. Similarly the plot of the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies revolves around a disgruntled media tycoon who sinks a British warship in the South China Sea in order to provoke World War Three. While Clancy is synonymous with mass-market political and espionage thrillers, and Bond is.. well Bond, the potential for a wider conflagration in the South China Sea is not purely fictional as Vietnam’s live fire exercise this week demonstrates. The exercises, which came after Chinese surveillance ships obstructed and then cut the cable of a Vietnamese oil survey ship on May 26th, are merely the latest incident between China and the other littoral states on the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is one of the largest marginal seas in the world and is bounded by Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all of whom stake claims to some or all of the islands, islets and reefs within the sea, as well as to the economic resources contained therein. (Only China and Vietnam claim all the islands. Taiwan’s claim is co-terminous with China’s since Taiwan is the successor to the nationalist government of China). The 3000 plus islands, islets and reeds of the South China Sea are grouped into three archipelagos: The Spratly Islands, the Paracels and the Pratas Islands (as well Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal) of which the Spratlys are the largest. The islands do not contain permanent populations, since there are no fresh-water supplies, no native animals, and many of the formations are at least partially submerged at high tide

Claim to Spratlys and oil reserves

The principal point of conflict and concern among the littoral states of Southeast Asia and China is that the China effectively claims the South China Sea as a ‘Chinese Lake’. Evidence for this comes from the infamous nine-dotted (or nine-dashed) line that the Peoples Republic has used to demarcate its southern border since 1948 and which in 2009 it submitted to the United Nations. First drawn up by the former Nationalist government in the 1930s, the 9-dotted line is deliberately ambiguous because it does not illustrate a specific boundary, nor does it indicate how the lines would be joined up. However if they are taken to illustrate the maximum continuous extent of China’s claim then this effectively means that the PRC stakes claim to approximately 80 per cent of the waters of the South China Sea including all the disputed islands.

Vietnam in turn also claims the South China Sea islands flow from historical activities during the Nguyen dynasty between the 17th and 19th Centuries as well as by occupation. In 1975 when the Communists emerged victorious from the Vietnam War, thirteen islands in the Spratlys were occupied followed by another dozen since 1989. Today there are approximately 600 troops are deployed across these islands on semi-permanent structures.

Over the past thirty years there have been numerous incidents and skirmishes between China and her neighbors over the islands. The most significant of these took place in 1988 between Vietnam and China when Vietnamese forces were rushed to Johnson South Reef following the detection of Chinese forces in the area. The Chinese reinforced their troops with three frigates and defeated the Vietnamese. There were over 70 casualties, of which only six were Chinese, and in the aftermath China captured a further six islands in the vicinity. Six years later a similar ‘discovery’ was made by the Philippines at Mischief Reef, only 130 miles from the Philippine island of Palawan. However the Philippines contained their response to diplomatic protests. Since the United States is a treaty ally of The Philippines, any potential conflict with China could have resulted in wider confrontation.

Such small-scale incidents however do matter. Most importantly because freedom of navigation through the South China Sea is essential to international trade between Northeast Asia and the rest of the world. For example 41,000 ships pass through the waterway annually, twice that through the Suez Canal, and three times that which passes through the Panama Canal. Estimates put total trade via Southeast Asian sea-lanes at 39 per cent of Japan’s total trade and 27 per cent of China’s. In addition the majority of oil imports for China, Japan and South Korea all come through the South China Sea as do almost two-thirds of liquefied natural gas shipments.

Military structure in Spratlys

So if the waters are so vital to international trade why are states willing to assert their claims over others risking conflict and disruption to that trade? The answer inevitably is oil. According to some experts, though the figures are disputed, beneath the South China Sea there could be 200 billion barrels of untapped oil, equivalent to 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves. Thus control the waters and you can claim the resources beneath them. This jurisdictional right for coastal states over seabed resources was codified in 1982 in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For example, within the UNCLOS is the right to exploit living and nonliving resources of an island or archipelago by permitting the establishment of a 12-mile territorial sea around the island and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Hence the scramble for the Spratlys is not about the possession of a few hundred uninhabited reefs and islets that are often partially submerged but about energy, economics and geostrategic concerns. This is why it matters to the Philippines that they recently found and removed Chinese territorial markers on Boxhall and Douglas Bank, or that the increased presence of Chinese surveillance ships in the waters is treated with growing concern by nearly all of the littoral states.

The former Ukranian carrier Varyag soon

Furthermore, behind all of the rhetoric and saber rattling in recent weeks lies the longer term concern along China’s neighbors about China’s growing military threat to the region. Since 2000 China’s military budget has grown from $14.6 billion to $91.5 billion recording an average annual spending increase of 12.9 per cent annually. To date China’s ability to project its force into the region has been limited but recent improvements in in-flight refueling, and the growth of the PRC’s submarine fleet, have changed that. Worse still the refitted former Ukranian aircraft carrier the Varyag will soon be launched as China’s first aircraft carrier. Originally ‘intended’ to be a floating casino in Dailan, over the past few years a stream of photographs on military enthusiasts websites showing the construction of a sloping takeoff deck and a new command tower clearly revealed that the Varyag’s purchase had little to do with entertainment. Speculation was finally brought to an end at the beginning of June when the chief of China’s military staff Chen Bingde confirmed that the carrier was being built and could be ready in weeks.

While China has sought to reassure its neighbors that it has no interest in military solutions to the island disputes and welcomes joint economic development with no requirement that this be contingent on accepting Chinese sovereignty over the islands, its neighbors are skeptical about such reassurances. Concerns only reinforced by strong denunciations by China of any exploitation of resources in the area without its approval. On June 9th, for example, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines, Liu Jianchao, stated “[w]e are calling on other parties to stop searching the possibility of exploiting resources in this area where China has its claims. If these countries really want to do so, they have to inform the Chinese about the possibility of having joint cooperation”.

For the time being large-scale military conflict in the South China Sea is unlikely. The size of the South China Sea and the distance of the islands from the coasts of the respective claimants create enormous logistical problems. Many of the islands are over 1000 miles from mainland China and more than 300 from The Philippines and Vietnam. Thus any effective occupation or prolonged control is limited, while patrols could only be effective for relatively small areas. In the longer term Southeast Asian countries are increasingly beginning to recognize, some reluctantly, that the only guarantor of security and the maintenance of the waters as ‘open’ is to ensure the continued engagement of the United States as an Asian power. For the time being this chimes with Washington’s own strategy for the region. However with growing budget woes and US forces already overstretched globally there is no guarantee that this will continue indefinitely. So for the time being the ‘spat in the Spratlys’ may be a storm in a teacup, however fortune tellers have long read the symbols and patterns left by loose tea-leaves as a form of divination. In this light while major conflict in the South China Sea is arguably in no-ones’ interest there remains the potential for that conflict.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
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3 Responses to “Red storm rising or storm in a teacup? The South China Sea island disputes”

  1. damian millington
    juni 16th, 2011 @ 23:46

    Red storm rising is about a possible russian move for fuel after a POL disaster which leaves them months from a national disaster it involves strikes through finland, sweden and germany but no mention of china lol someone needs to read these books before they use them to back a story about the spratlys

  2. China Lee
    juni 18th, 2011 @ 04:00

    Chinese South China Sea sovereignty is based on:

    1. China’s historical first discovery and claim in 618 A.D.

    2. Unchallenged Chinese dominion for over a thousand years.

    The South China Sea islands and territory were claimed by the Tang, Song, and countless other Chinese dynasties. Vietnamese and Filipinos lacked ocean-faring boats and were not even aware of the existence of the Paracel and Spratly Islands from the 7th century to the 17th century.

    3. Historical written Chinese imperial records.

    Tang, Song, and countless Chinese dynasties describe the Paracel and Spratly Islands as part of China.

    4. Physical proof of Chinese inhabitants (Chinese burials and artifacts)

    5. Vietnamese ceded any potential legal claim to the Paracel and Spratly Islands on September 14, 1958 in a signed diplomatic document by Vietnam Premier Pham Van.

    6. The entire Vietnamese government admitted to Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and territory.

    On June 15, 1956, Vice Foreign Minister of the DRV (North Vietnam) Ung Van Khiem admitted Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

    Another DRV official, Le Loc (Temporary Head of the Asian Mission), concurred in Chinese sovereignty over South China Sea islands.

  3. China sucks
    juni 18th, 2011 @ 22:47

    China Lee,

    Stop going around internet websites and spreading all the lies about China pathetic attempts of expansion.

    You post the same bullcrap over and over but by repeating the same old lines will not make them become the truth.

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