East and South China Sea Disputes Need Creative Diplomacy

Posted by Eric Haun
Friday, August 29, 2014

China and the United States appear headed for a damaging confrontation over the extent of China's territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.

Now that China has become the world's largest importer of oil, and energy more generally, the country's need to develop more indigenous energy supplies has become urgent.

Expecting China to put the South and East China Seas off limits to exploration and production until disputes over sovereignty can be resolved through some undefined legal or diplomatic process is unrealistic.

Part of the problem is that western analysts and policymakers still fail to appreciate the strategic importance of these areas. It is common to hear maritime disputes between China and its neighbours characterised in terms of uninhabited islands, submerged reefs, historic fishing grounds and unfinished business from World War Two.

In reality, the disputes centre on control over areas which are thought to contain substantial quantities of oil and gas, which could be vital to the economic development of all states in the area.

U.S. diplomats were reportedly dismayed when China started to claim the South China Sea was among the country's "core national interests" along with Tibet and Taiwan.

But given the potential for developing substantial oil and gas fields in both the South and East China Seas it should have been obvious that they could not be treated as unimportant claims that could be deferred indefinitely.

Unfrozen Conflicts
U.S. diplomats sometimes appear to want to freeze the disputes, a position which is both unhelpful and dangerous.

According to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the United States takes "no position on competing territorial claims" in both seas, but wants disputes peacefully resolved "in accordance with international law."

At a regional security conference in Singapore in May 2014, Hagel singled out what he termed China's "destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea," without apportioning blame to other countries, a one-sided approach that drew a furious protest from China.

Subsequently, General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer, has become the first chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to visit Vietnam since 1971, fuelling China's suspicions about encirclement and quiet U.S. backing for neighbouring states over maritime disputes.

The United States has also refused to recognise China's self-declared Air Defence Indentification Zone in the East China Sea and insisted the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands are covered by its mutual defence pact with Japan, even while U.S. officials insist they do not take a view on the underlying issue of sovereignty.

This strategy (expressing no view on sovereignty while trying to freeze the status quo pending an unlikely diplomatic resolution of the disputes) is dangerous and threatens to worsen the standoff because the status quo is not remotely stable.

Oil and Gas Potential
Western analysts and policymakers tend to downplay the potential oil and gas resources of the disputed areas, but this probably understates the amount of energy which could be recovered if the areas were thoroughly developed.

Both the South and East China Seas contain sedimentary basins with thick layers of mud, silt and organic material deposited on the floor of ancient seas and lakes. Both have already seen significant oil and gas discoveries (http://link.reuters.com/vug72w).

The South China Sea is ringed with known oil and gas fields off China's Pearl River Delta, Hainan Island and the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.

In 2010, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated the South China Sea contains about 11 billion barrels of oil and 145 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that have yet to be discovered ("Assessment of undiscovered oil and gas resources of Southeast Asia" March 2010).

In global terms, these are relatively modest amounts. For China, however, they are much more significant.

The assessment focused exclusively on coastal areas and did not include potential resources in the deeper waters in the centre of the sea around the islands and reefs which are at the heart of the dispute.

The South China Sea remains comparatively unexplored and there is the potential for substantial additional discoveries. China's oil companies believe the area has strong hydrocarbon potential and they have published resource estimates which are an order of magnitude higher than western analysts.

The hydrocarbon potential of the East China Sea is even less well known. But there are good reasons to believe that it could hold significant quantities of recoverable oil and gas. Several oil and gas fields have already been found in sea areas claimed by both China and Japan.

The sea borders on the Songliao and Bohaiwan basins have been in production for decades and account for most of China's current oil and gas output. There is therefore a high probability more oil and gas could be found further offshore in the East China Sea itself.

Law of the Sea
With advances in ultra-deepwater drilling the potential for far offshore exploration and production has never been greater and the dispute over sovereignty in the East and South China Seas is unlikely to remain frozen.

U.S. diplomats have suggested the disputes could be resolved through international law, norms and diplomacy, without outlining how that might actually be achieved.

In its maritime boundary dispute, the Philippines has filed a claim against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

UNCLOS is cited by many outside observers as a suitable legal framework for resolving disputes between China and its neighbours.

But UNCLOS is not really relevant to the dispute because the core of the disagreement concerns ownership and sovereignty over the islands and other outcrops.

Once sovereignty has been established, UNCLOS can help assign rights and responsibilities to all the parties, including control of shipping, fishing and oil and gas drilling.

But UNCLOS cannot resolve the underlying disputes about sovereignty in the first place.

China has already rejected the arbitrators' jurisdiction, which suggests the process is headed for failure.

Creative Diplomacy
The parties to the various disputes are all now raiding their archives for ancient books, letters and artefacts to bolster their claims to historic control over the disputed islets.

Such historical research is unlikely ever to resolve the claims persuasively (just look at Britain's and Argentina's unresolved dispute over the Falklands-Malvinas).

The only real solution is diplomatic. The coastal states around the South and East China Seas will have to agree to divide, share or pool their sovereignty in the interests of security and to permit the peaceful exploitation of the resources.

There are plenty of examples of such shared resource development, ranging from the Spitsbergen Archipelago in the Arctic to the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Before the recent flare up, China and Japan had agreed jointly to develop the Chunxiao gas field, which straddles the maritime boundary.

The challenge for diplomats, especially from the United States, is to help the parties discover creative solutions that benefit all the coastal states.

Instead, U.S. diplomats have encouraged all parties to harden their positions and suggested the entire dispute can be frozen until some ill-defined legal process runs its course.

This strategy will not work and is escalating rather than defusing tensions in the area, encouraging coastal states to pursue maximal claims rather than compromise and negotiate common solutions.

It is time that western policymakers recognised that hydrocarbon exploration is both necessary and desirable in both the South and East China Seas.

Oil and gas exploration must be a stabilising force for cooperation, rather than a source of conflict and competition.

(By John Kemp; Editing by Michael Urquhart)

Maritime Reporter January 2015 Digital Edition
FREE Maritime Reporter Subscription
Latest Maritime News    rss feeds

Navy

Canadian Navy Delays Opening of Arctic facility

Canada's military has again delayed the opening of a major new Arctic port, a sign the government is struggling to assert sovereignty over a remote resource-rich region.

Hornbeck Completes $114M Sale of OSVs to U.S. Navy

Hornbeck Offshore Services has closed the sale of three 250EDF class OSVs to the U.S. Navy, the company announced today.   The three vessels were sold for cash consideration of $114 million,

Italy to Begin Naval Exercises off Libya

Italy will begin annual naval exercises this week near the coast of Libya, where a breakdown in order has allowed tens of thousands of migrants to try to reach

Energy

Nabors Posts Quarterly Loss as Drilling Activity Slows

Offshore driller Nabors Industries Ltd reported a quarterly loss, hurt by lower drilling activity amid a slump in global crude prices.   The company posted a net loss of $891.

Floater Orders 2014

25 Units Orders in 2014:  10 FPSOs, 1 Barge, 4 FLNGs, 7 FSRUs & 3 FSOs The overall number of orders is similar to the average ordering pace over the past 10 years,

Interview: Nakilat's Samir Bailouni

SGMF Membership - Uncovered: An interview with Samir Bailouni, Nakilat The Society for Gas and Marine Fuel (SGMF) recently interviewed one of its members, Samir

Maritime Security

Clyde Marine Training Reports Short Course Milestone

Clyde Marine Training informs it has reached a milestone this week, welcoming its 10,000th person to successfully complete one of its marine short courses. Christopher

Italy to Begin Naval Exercises off Libya

Italy will begin annual naval exercises this week near the coast of Libya, where a breakdown in order has allowed tens of thousands of migrants to try to reach

Hijacked Indonesian Vessel Found in Philippines

The hijacked Indonesian cargo ship Rehoboth has been found abandoned in waters off Mati town in Davao Oriental province off the southern Philippines coast, says the  the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

News

Canadian Navy Delays Opening of Arctic facility

Canada's military has again delayed the opening of a major new Arctic port, a sign the government is struggling to assert sovereignty over a remote resource-rich region.

Nabors Posts Quarterly Loss as Drilling Activity Slows

Offshore driller Nabors Industries Ltd reported a quarterly loss, hurt by lower drilling activity amid a slump in global crude prices.   The company posted a net loss of $891.

Mariner Medevaced in Alaska

An ailing mariner was medevaced from a fishing vessel in Beaver Inlet, approximately 13 miles southeast of Dutch Harbor, Sunday, the U.S. Coast Guard reported.   The

Coast Guard

Mariner Medevaced in Alaska

An ailing mariner was medevaced from a fishing vessel in Beaver Inlet, approximately 13 miles southeast of Dutch Harbor, Sunday, the U.S. Coast Guard reported.   The

Seafarers ... Get Some Rest!

With global focus on the mariner courtesy of MLC2006, reinforced by a number of high profile catastrophic maritime casualties that are directly linked to “the human factor,

Zeroing in on Zukunft

The U.S. Coast Guard Commandant addresses a packed Passenger Vessel Association meeting and outlines both the challenges and opportunities facing his organization.

Eye on the Navy

Canadian Navy Delays Opening of Arctic facility

Canada's military has again delayed the opening of a major new Arctic port, a sign the government is struggling to assert sovereignty over a remote resource-rich region.

Italy to Begin Naval Exercises off Libya

Italy will begin annual naval exercises this week near the coast of Libya, where a breakdown in order has allowed tens of thousands of migrants to try to reach

Canadian Submarines Ready to Hit the Sea

For the first time since they were purchased in 1998, the Royal Canadian Navy has reached a stage where three of its four diesel-electric submarines are now shipshape and available for operations.

Government Update

Canadian Navy Delays Opening of Arctic facility

Canada's military has again delayed the opening of a major new Arctic port, a sign the government is struggling to assert sovereignty over a remote resource-rich region.

Zeroing in on Zukunft

The U.S. Coast Guard Commandant addresses a packed Passenger Vessel Association meeting and outlines both the challenges and opportunities facing his organization.

Brazil Truckers Continue Roadblocks After Crackdown

Striking truck drivers resumed some roadblocks in Brazil on Monday even as the government cracked down on protesters and promised to implement a law to lower toll

 
 
Maritime Contracts Maritime Standards Navigation Pipelines Pod Propulsion Port Authority Ship Electronics Ship Simulators Sonar Winch
rss | archive | history | articles | privacy | terms and conditions | contributors | top maritime news | about us | copyright | maritime magazines
maritime security news | shipbuilding news | maritime industry | shipping news | maritime reporting | workboats news | ship design | maritime business

Time taken: 0.2861 sec (3 req/sec)