Tensions in the South China Sea have been ramping up for years now.
- Huge, overlapping sections of the Sea are currently subject to claims by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
- 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.
Tensions in the South China Sea have been percolating for years now. Even in relatively calm times when the battling claimants of the contested waters manage to stay out of the headlines, the reality out on the sea is rarely tranquil. In fact, a recent report from the South China Morning Post has revealed that Chinese boats have been harassing Civilian vessels in the Malaysian and Vietnamese portions of the South China Sea “on a daily basis” for years. Extending from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the southwest to the Strait of Taiwan 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 home of valuable oil and gas reserves as well as lucrative fishing grounds. The United States Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that the South China Sea “contains approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves.”
Huge, overlapping sections of the Sea are currently subject to claims by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China has staked the largest claims to the South China Sea (at more than 85% of the total area) and has been the most aggressive in defending these claims, with a huge show of military might and navy vessels patrolling the waters. Last year, during another flare-up of tensions, the Asia Times reported that China’s most recent rash of aggressions was a bid to shut down Vietnamese resource development projects “as Beijing aims to force all foreign oil companies out of the South China Sea, leaving itself as the only potential joint development partner for rival sea claimants.”
Vietnam is far from 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 the recent reports from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Malaysia has been bearing the brunt of Chinese bullying on a daily basis for the past two years. The Malaysian state-owned oil company Petronas has been developing several oil and gas fields in the Luconia Shoals, where Chinese vessels have been reportedly driving dangerously and erratically with the intention of dissuading civilians to take contracts in the area.
“Beijing’s competing claimants to territory in the South China Sea have long accused it of using a paramilitary maritime militia, consisting of hundreds of civilian fishing boats, to help enforce its claims,” The South China Morning Post reported this week. The Chinese government claims that these swaths of civilian fishing boats are not dispatched by the military, but that they join of their own accord, although many other governing bodies (including the United States) believe that the vessels are directly under the command of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
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 costly, and in this region, the battle could easily turn into another kind of ‘forever war.” And then there’s the fact that China risks destruction in the very waters that it wants to claim, imperiling valuable infrastructure. There are a lot of reasons why China should not and likely will not push its competing claimants hard enough to start a war, and many more reasons that much lesser military powers like Malaysia and Indonesia should just grin and bear the abuse, but Beijing’s behavior over the past few years has shown that China is more than willing to test those boundaries.