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Dave Summers

Dave Summers

David (Dave) Summers is a Curators' Professor Emeritus of Mining Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology (he retired in 2010). He directed the…

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Will the Territory Dispute in the South China Sea Lead to War?

In the introductory remarks to these posts on Chinese energy supplies and usage, I mentioned that one of the concerns beginning to be evident lies in disputes over the ownership of some of the oilfields offshore. Disputes over ownership have been continuing for some time, and this week was no exception, with Chinese moves to create a new city, Sansha, on Woody Island and thereby strengthen their claim to the region. Woody Island, or Yongsing lies in the Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea.

Location of Dispute in South China Sea
Figure 1. Location of the current region of dispute in the South China Sea (Agency France Press)

Ownership of the territory, and underlying potential hydrocarbon reserves, is a matter of dispute between several countries, although China has administered the region since a 1974 conflict with Vietnam.

The Chinese government declared the establishment of Sansha last month, saying its role is to administer the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagos and surrounding South China Sea waters, which are believed to hold oil and natural gas deposits. The islands are claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) has recently sought foreign interest in exploring nine blocks in the region, coming as close as a mile to the Paracel Islands – a region that Vietnam claims lies within its territorial waters, and which it used to occupy.

Further south, near the Spratly Islands, the dispute switches to include the Philippines with the latter already getting bids for some of the blocks, which the Philippines also claims lie within their 200-mile territorial waters. The benefit that China achieves by claiming the Spratly Islands can be seen by looking at the change that this brings to their territorial waters, in contrast with those of the other adjacent countries.

Disputed Territory arounf the Spretly Islands
Figure 2. Disputed territories around the Spratly Islands, and the territorial waters in dispute. (EIA) The extent by which the Spratly’s extend Chinese territorial waters can be understood from the location of the red line showing their claims.

In more detail, the areas of dispute can be broken into more specific locations, names which might become more familiar if these disputes continue to fester. Which they are quite likely to do since the region is thought to hold up to 213 billion barrels of oil, more than that left in the Saudi reserve.

Regions in the South China Sea
Figure 3. Regional identifying names in the South China Sea. (Next Big Future)

The disputes are now moving to possibly bring in additional players, with China already accusing the United States of meddling, and this just after Secretary Clinton had appeared to make some progress in defusing the tensions.

These tensions in the region are not new, and in his book “Resource Wars” Michael Klare listed some of the conflicts that had taken place between some of the involved parties in the years to 2001, when the book was written. In several cases shots had been fired and people died, as the different nations tried to establish claims, most particularly to various, otherwise uninhabited islands in the Spratly Islands.

In 1974 China seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, and in the resulting conflict a Vietnamese naval vessel was sunk, and several soldiers were killed.

In 1988 the Chinese and Vietnamese navies exchanged shots at Johnson reef (video here) with Vietnam losing three ships.

In 1992 Vietnam accused China of landing troops at Da Luc Reef, and China seized 20 cargo ships in the ongoing dispute. Both parties have landed on different islands as a way of seeking to claim the territory and the Vietnamese Parliament has just (2012) passed a law establishing sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. This has raised more tension with China.

The conflicts are not just between China and Vietnam, in 1995 the Phillipine government discovered that China had built a military base at Mischief Reef, which lies some 150 miles from Palawan Island, and as Michael Klare notes, well within the 200 mile territorial waters of the Philippines (which extend 200 miles – to simplify the explanation of the nuances of maritime law). Given that there are mutual defense treaties between the USA and the Philippines (dating from 1951) and that China militarily rebuffed the Philippine ships sent to investigate, created new tensions in the region. An Army War College review paper has noted the military buildup that is now occurring:

Aside from China's long-term modernization plan for both her Army and Navy, Brunei, Malaysia, and lndonesia have purchased aircraft from the United Kingdom. Malaysia bought guided missile frigates from the United Kingdom and lndonesia purchased sixteen corvettes from the former East Germany. Even the financially strapped Philippines is acquiring Italian aircraft and is also considering an additional $14 billion for defense modernization. The possibility of a regional arms race is clearly very real, if not already underway.

The situation at Mischief Reef has continued to evolve. As Strategy World notes:


For over three decades China has been using a gradual strategy that involves first leaving buoys (for navigation purposes, to assist Chinese fishermen), followed by temporary shelters (again, for the Chinese fishermen) on islets or reefs that are above water but otherwise uninhabited. If none of the other claimants to this piece of ocean remove the buoys or shelters, China builds a more permanent structure to aid passing Chinese fishermen. This shelter will be staffed by military personnel who will, of course, have radio, radar, and a few weapons. If no one attacks this mini-base China will expand it and warn anyone in the area that the base is Chinese territory and any attempts to remove it will be seen as an act of war. The Vietnamese tried to get physical against these Chinese bases in 1974 and 1988 and were defeated both times.

Since the initial incident the small base at Mischief reef has been expanded into a more substantial military base, whose presence is now being used to justify a Chinese objection to the Philippine authorized drilling for oil off Palawan Island. The Chinese have also prepared to start drilling around Palawan Island, bringing the Philippine Navy back into the dispute.

And further north the Chinese Drilling Ship the CNOOC 981 has begun (in early May) to drill around the Paracel Islands. This is the first deep water well that the company has drilled itself, the fifteen earlier such wells being drilled by CNOOC partners. The exploration vessel Ocean Oil 708 is now also working in the disputed region.

Although the tensions have not accelerated as swiftly as Michael Klare anticipated when he wrote “Resource Wars” over a decade ago, they are nevertheless indicative of the aggressive position that China is taking to secure as much oil and gas as it can for future needs. With the modernization of their navy there some quite serious concerns developing over their future plans, since territorial issues can lead on to much greater conflict that we have seen so far in the region.

By. Dave Summers

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  • JUANITO M. ALCON on August 10 2012 said:
    Spratly Island:

    A long disputed Island that Asian countries near it were claiming as part of their territory. A dispute that may result to a misunderstanding between neighboring countries that were part of a sea trade for so many years.

    Why not let the ASEAN countries resolve this issue within them first. The organization was set to make communication lines open between it's members and yet it is clearly showing now that it was just organized as a show-off organization in order to be recognized by international organizations.

    will it be possible for the claiming parties to create a governing board or body that will set the necessary guidelines on how the issue will be tackled accordingly.

    FOR US FILIPINO: (So many questions to be answered).

    1. Are we ready to defend our territory?
    2. Are we ready to stand alone?
    3. Are we ready to really manage and use the
    resources that are present in Spratly's.
    4. Are we ready for WAR?????

    These are the question even an ordinary Filipino can answer. Questions that tickle my mind when I am thinking on how we live everyday with the other Asians that are here in the Philippines. Products that comes from our neighboring countries that are dominantly seen every where we go. Not to mention almost 80% of it comes from China. So, are we really ready?

    Why not help each other develop the disputed island and gain from it equally. With this kind of cooperation, then we Asians can prove to the other groups that we as ASEAN members/organization can grow at the same time and be able to go on with the changes and improvements this superpowers are having. We only need to give up our lives in a situation when there will be no solution but to fight for us to survive. Remember that even without these islands, we can still be called as a strong country.

    Who will benefit if the dispute will escalate into WAR. Of course we all know that only those who has the capability to get into WAR will. Let us not be blinded by the true agenda of those who are saying that they just want to settle the issue. But did you ever heard of a statement that promotes a camaraderie between this nations? What we always hear was that, "we will support"! Support to us when the dispute will escalate and that they will provide us armament to defend ourselves. I never heard of a resolution like "to support this neighboring countries develop and improve mutual understanding between each other.

    The truth is that we are being blinded only by these supposed to be FRIEND.....

  • Anti Monster Maggot on August 10 2012 said:
    @ Juanito M. Alcon: You are right with your arguments. We have no capabilities for war at all. I am afraid it will only result for Filipino annihilation if we resort to war.

    But I am not convinced with your idea that China will participate with the ASEAN's for co-partnership in Spratley islands. Their presence in that region is malicious, bastard and with no manners at all. China never owned South China Sea. Spratley Islands, including Bajo de Masinloc is far out of bound from 200 miles EEZ. It was China's demonstration of disrespect and ignorance to territorial ethics and agreements.

    Of course.. We are not idiots to agree fair share on resources. Who do think needs huge amount of resources? Small nations??? NO ITS NOT. It's the Chinese who will have greater advantage to exploit and manipulate those resources.

    Yes, ragtag nations will not coequal with China's aggressive war effort. But those monster maggots will surely never escaped the rage of silent hatred inside the hearts of the tyrant souls. They will answer for it and China's generation will face the consequences of their action.

    Filipinos have tested tyranny of giant nations, but their brave souls never surrendered but triumphantly succeeded out of those chains. FILIPINOS WILL PERSEVERE TO FIGHT and Chinese generations will also cry in anguish to save their tormented greedy souls..
  • Proud Half Pinoy on August 11 2012 said:
    The Philippine islands did not just pop out of nowhere for China to claim the entire South China sea. The Chinese claims they first discovered and had been fishing in these areas for centuries? What about the native of the Philippines? Filipinos have originated from diffirent ethnicities and if they had the ability to go island-hopping thousands of years ago then there's no doubt they already knew about these disputed islands and had been fishing there long before the Chinese discovered them. The oldest humand remains found in the Philippine Archipelago has been reported at 67,000 years. So for China to say they first discovered these disputed islands(especially islands close to the Philippines) is absolute nonsense!

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