Is there a war brewing in the South China Sea?
Tensions in the South China Sea have been escalating for years. Even in relatively calm times when the struggling claimants of disputed waters manage to keep from making headlines, reality at sea is seldom quiet. In fact, a recent South China Morning Post report found that Chinese ships have been harassing civilian ships in the Malaysian and Vietnamese parts of the South China Sea “on a daily basis” for years.
Stretching from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the southwest to the Taiwan Strait in the northeast, the South China Sea is a geopolitical hotspot as one of the most important trade routes in the world, not to mention the homeland of precious oil and gas. reserves as well as lucrative fishing grounds. The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that the South China Sea “contains about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proven and probable reserves.”
Huge overlapping sections of the sea are currently the subject of claims from Brunei, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China has staked out the largest claims on the South China Sea (to over 85% of the total area) and has been the most aggressive in defending those claims, with a huge display of military might and ships from the navy patrolling the waters. Last year, in another flare-up of tensions, the Asia Times reported that China’s latest wave of assaults was an attempt to shut down Vietnamese resource development projects “because Beijing aims to force all of them. foreign oil companies to leave the South China Sea, leaving itself as the only potential joint development partner for rival applicants to the sea. “
Vietnam is far from being Beijing’s only victim, however. Indonesian drilling has also been targeted in the so-called “tuna block” in the Natuna Sea, in the same waters where these two nations have clashed in the past over fishing rights. And now, according to recent reports from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Malaysia has suffered daily harassment from the Chinese for two years. Malaysian state oil company Petronas has developed several oil and gas fields in the Luconia Shoals, where Chinese ships are said to have driven dangerously and erratically in an attempt to deter civilians from contracting in the region.
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“Beijing’s competing claimants in the South China Sea territory have long accused it of using a paramilitary maritime militia, made up of hundreds of civilian fishing boats, to help advance its claims,” ââreported this week the South China Morning Post. The Chinese government claims that these bands of civilian fishing boats are not sent by the military, but join on their own, although many other governing bodies (including the United States) believe the vessels are directly under the command of the People’s Navy of the Liberation Army.
An all-out oil war in the South China Sea would be extremely costly for China and ultimately may not be in the country’s best interest. Invading another nation is expensive, and in that region the battle could easily turn into another type of “Eternal War”. And then there’s the fact that China risks destruction in the very waters it wants to claim, putting precious infrastructure at risk. There are many reasons why China should not and probably will not push its contenders hard enough to start a war, and many more reasons why much lesser military powers like Malaysia and Indonesia should simply smile and put up with the abuse, but Beijing’s behavior over the past few years has shown that China is more than willing to test these borders.
By Haley Zaremba for Oil Octobers
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