by M. Ulric Killion
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Philippines' Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario meet with reporters at the State Department in Washington Photo: AP. According to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “We are concerned that recent incidents in the South China Sea could undermine peace and stability” (US ready to arm Philippines against rise of China, The Telegraph, June 23, 2011).
The dispute concerning issues of sovereignty over the South China Sea has a long history, notwithstanding the dispute over the East China Sea – the Senkaku Islands or Diaoyutai Islands (Diaoyutai Qundao). The Spratly Islands comprise about forty-five (45) islands. These islands are also occupied by military units from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. There is even occupancy, though not a military occupancy, of an island by Brunei, which claims an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) (i.e., the Law of the Sea) in the southeastern part of the Spratly Islands.
More recently, however, according to news media sources, the dispute presently centers on the sovereignty claims of China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
For these claimants, the right of sovereignty symbolizes the right of access to much-needed natural resources, which includes the prize of access to potential oil and natural gas supplies. More accurately, these natural resources include fish, guano, and undermined oil and natural gas potentials.
The dispute between China and Vietnam is especially noteworthy, as both countries claim sovereignty over the Spratly archipelago (i.e., Spratly Islands). China is vehement in its stance that the claims of sovereignty by other countries to the Spratly Islands violate its sovereignty and maritime rights.
Photo / Dana Robert Dillon, U.S. Role in South China Sea Dispute, Paracel and Spratly Islands Forum, January 2008.
For this reason, Vietnam’s claim of sovereignty is noteworthy, and demonstrates the critical importance of access to natural resources. Although both Vietnam and China are communist regimes, the critical importance of access to potential natural resources still leaves them unable to resolve their differences concerning issues of sovereignty and maritime rights.
The dispute between China and Vietnam is especially interesting because, as the Oil & Gas Journal (2011) recently reported,
A subsidiary of Mitra Energy Ltd. has signed a production sharing contract with Petrovietnam Exploration Production Corp. for Block 45 on the eastern margin of the Malay-Tho-Chu basin off Vietnam.
Mitra’s subsidiary is operator with 70% interest in the block, which covers 4,677 sq km in 50 m of water 250 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh city. Petrovietnam EP has 30% interest. The block is adjacent to Mitra’s existing PSCs on Blocks 46/07 and Block 51 in the well-established oil and gas province.
Acquisition of 270 sq km of 3D seismic was undertaken on Block 45 in April and May 2011 as part of the work program. Petrovietnam’s approval of the presignature seismic shoot allowed Mitra to take advantage of commercially attractive seismic vessel rates and optimum weather. Processing of the seismic data will take 6 months (Vietnam: Mitra gets Malay basin Block off Vietnam, Oil & Gas Journal, June 17, 2011).
Lying at the heart of this problem is that oil and natural gas exploration of the Spratley Islands is inevitable. In the search for much-needed access to oil and natural gas, while China and Vietnam are poised (i.e., resources and funding in place) to commence exploration and production, or joint E&P, the Philippines appear to be standing on the sideline as they did not take part in the earlier, though controversial, seismic survey.
File photo shows a Chinese national flag flying above structures built on stilts on Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. Hanoi normally treads carefully in its relations with its Chinese ideological ally, but the regional ambitions of its large neighbour have stoked a degree of apprehension in Vietnam. Photo / Vietnam, US display military ties amid China tension, France24, August 10, 2010.
In comparison, as early as 2006, the communist countries of Vietnam and China were even entertaining the prospect of a joint exploration and development of offshore blocks in the disputed Spratly Islands (PetroVietnam in Beijing, GlobalSecurity.org, September 13, 2006).
The Energy Tribune earlier described Beijing’s intended joint exploration and production as follows.
PetroChina holds 20 blocks in the South China Sea. They cover 127,000 square kilometers in the Qiongdongnan, Beibu Gulf, Zhongjiannan, South Weixi, and Beikang basins, some of which are subject to border disputes with Vietnam and Malaysia. The company has held back drilling plans in the Spratlys at the Huaguang Trough of the Qiongdongnan basin to avoid protest from Vietnam. China, which already battled with Vietnam in the area in 1974 and 1988, has been calling for the Spratly claimants to shelve their disputes and instead opt for joint exploration there (PetroVietnam in Beijing, Energy Tribune, September 13, 2001).
All of this, practically speaking, renders the claims of the Philippines increasingly tenuous. Then there is the issue of the United States, its support for the claims of the Philippines, and its geopolitical posturing concerning the Spratly Islands. On June 23, 2001, as news media resources reported, “The United States government is ready to provide assistance to strengthen the Philippine military, including external support for maritime defense, amidst the mounting friction with China on the disputed Spratly islands” (US ready to arm Philippines against rise of China, The Telegraph, June 23, 2011). According to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “We are concerned that recent incidents in the South China Sea could undermine peace and stability” (The Telegraph).
Map showing disputed island groups in the South China Sea. Last week, Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga denounced China for sending ships to carry out seismic studies in the Paracels zone, which "violated Vietnam's indisputable sovereignty".Photo / Vietnam, US display military ties amid China tension, France24, August 10, 2010.
A problem for the U.S. stance, geopolitical posturing, or even revival of Cold War tactics, is that both Vietnam and China are already in position to commence E&P, while the Philippines stood idle. By doing so, the Philippines are hardly in a position to seriously play catch-up on the path to E&P with either Vietnam or China.
Additionally, there is the commonality between Vietnam and China, they are communist regimes. As communist regimes, they may yet resolve their differences, and this will eventually serve to further frustrate the efforts of both the Philippines and US geopolitical posturing.
From China’s perspective, “The US is in no position to intervene as an outsider of the area,” said Xu Liping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, adding that Washington has never before voiced such opinions. And “the issue is between China and related Southeast Asian countries, and to internationalize it (will) only make the issue more complicated” (South China Sea issues are hurt by US: Experts, China Daily/Associated Press, September 20, 2010, June).
As one source earlier observed,
Although Beijing persists in reminding all other claimant countries that the South China Sea is Chinese sovereign territory, China has been very careful about not officially demarcating its specific maritime claims. Thus, other countries can only infer China's specific claims from Beijing's statements and actions, and China retains the option to change or redefine its maritime border according to the situation (Dana Robert Dillon, U.S. Role in South China Sea Dispute, Paracel and Spratly Islands Forum, January 2008).
Moreover, it is unlikely that US hard power (i.e., military power) will resolve the current crisis of the Philippines. This is because neither the Philippines nor United States will actually employ military force in resolving this dispute. In the end, as earlier mentioned, all of this, ultimately, renders the claims of the Philippines increasingly tenuous.
Copyright © Protected – All Rights Reserved M. Ulric Killion, 2011.