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Our oceans and seas provide us with a range of highly profitable resources. Caroline Lauer takes a look at the South China sea, where the pushing and pulling over sea-resources reflects the macro politics and economics of the whole region.

Dispute in the South China Sea

Territorial disputes have torn the South China Sea region over recent decades. The region was calm until the 1960s and 1970s when international companies begun prospecting for potential hydrocarbon resources, mainly oil and gas. Since then the region has suffered a string of low-intensity hostilities, with the underlying danger of an escalation to full-blown conflicts in the future.

Territorial claims are made over a number of islands, including the Paracelislands, Macclesfield Bank and the Spratly Islands. The most disputed territories are the Spratly islands, which consist of a total land area of only five square kilometres spread over about 800,000 square kilometres of sea in the form of 400 islands, reefs and sea mounts. China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have all made claims, placed markers or occupied several of these islands. A series of incidents have ensued.

When the Chinese started building on Fiery Cross Reef in 1888, a territory claimed by Vietnam, three Vietnamese boats were sunk and 70 Vietnamese were killed by Chinese forces in the resulting clash. In 1994, Vietnam built a drilling rig in an area that had been taken over by China two years earlier to start oil exploration with the American company Crestone. In 1995, China started building what the Philippines described as military structures on Mischief Reef, a Philippine claimed territory. As a response, the Philippines removed Chinese markers on the islands. The Philippines also arrested over 60 Chinese fishermen near Alicia Reef and Half Moon Shoal. In March 1995, the Taiwanese fired warning shots over the heads of a Vietnamese cargo vessel to force the boat to leave a Taiwanese territory. In the same week, Philippine forces also fired warning shots over Chinese fishing boats which had come within one mile of Thitu Island. In 1998, Vietnam suddenly took over Oreana Shoal and Kingstone Shoal, previously claimed by China.

In search of a resolution

Territorial claims have been based on historical allegations, actual occupations or unilateral decisions. The legal framework set by the 1982 UN law of the sea convention may potentially bring more confusion than a solution.

The convention gives sovereign rights over an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),which is an area of up to 200 nautical miles beyond the territorial sea. However, article 121 of the convention says rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life have no EEZ. Claimants have set up outposts, mainly military ones, on rocks and reefs in order to comply with article 121. Brunei, which has not occupied any of the Spratly Islands, has declared an EEZ which includes Louisa Reef.

The convention also stipulates that when different EEZ overlap, the claimants should settle the dispute through negotiations. As international law does not seem to offer a sufficient answer, the political route is likely to be more appropriate; even so, the claimants still have to find common grounds.

One of the main issues to be solved is China's insistence on finding bilateral resolutions, while other claimants have favoured multilateral settlements, with potentially the intervention of third parties.

Environmental degradation

According to regional specialists, none of the claiming states has the military capabilities necessary to assert its claims. In addition, the disputes prevent oil exploration, considered financially too risky in such a hostile environment. This in turn fuels the dispute since no claimant wants to relinquish any territory that may contain exploitable natural resources.

The combination of these two factors strengthens the status quo and leaves little hope for a quick resolution. The situation may even worsen in the future, as countries of the region will need more oil and gas as their economies grow.

For the meantime, the region continues to suffer from rapid environmental degradation and the depletion of its fish population, stemming from the lack of co-operation between states. Lack of collaboration has also allowed room for piracy to develop, making the South China Sea one of the most dangerous areas for navigation.

Arms race threat

China's development of its blue-water navy since the late 1980s has also raised concerns in the region. Observers are divided on explaining the purpose of such development.

Some believe that China intends to spread confusion among other claimants until it has the military strength to enforce its claims. Others think that China is developing its navy forces to ensure the national security necessary for its economic growth. Other countries have responded by taking noticeable, albeit limited, steps to improve the control over their own military capabilities. There is a potential risk that the situation escalates into a regional arms race.

Where are peace activists?

Although raising peace and environmental concerns, the South China Sea region does not seem to attract as much interest from international activism as it deserves.

There is no doubt that local groups may have been working on these issues, but the author of this article has not found a single group, other than government-affiliated organisations, which has been involved with the issues. This maybe due to the fact that actions on sea are difficult, especially in an unsafe climate, and they require a fair amount of resources to be undertaken. Yet the region is simmering with potential armed conflicts.

Caroline Lauer is a Peace News news editor. She lives in London, where she works as a professional journalist.

Topics: Global South | Green