Will Oil & Gas Trigger Flare-Ups in South China Sea?

rubber assault craft

Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy/Photo Amanda R. Gray

Will Oil & Gas Trigger Flare-Ups in South China Sea?
| published Sept. 16, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

In this U.S. Navy photograph, members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force launch from the water-lever deck of the amphibious docking ship USS Germantown in the Philippine Sea. The boats being used are combat rubber raiding crafts designed for amphibious assault operations—the sort of island, shoal or beach-type assault which may be required in some area of the South China Sea, Japan, the Philippine Sea, or in the wider Pacific Rim. These drills from the Germantown are part of joint force exercises in the U.S. 7th Fleet are of responsibility.

Tensions have been running high in some areas near China, most especially in the South China Sea, where in recent months there have been four officially-reported occasions of dangerous intercepts or close flybys by Chinese fighter pilots upon U.S. aircraft. In the most recent incident, the Chinese pilot brought his aircraft to within 40 feet of an American surveillance plane, then—upon eye contact—banked his plane so that the American crew could see that the Chinese fighter was armed with a full complement of weaponry.

But of deeper concern to some military analysts and foreign policy watchers is the contentious issue of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. Located in the South China Sea, and generally regarded by international authorities as belonging to the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively, these island clusters are being claimed by China under edicts and arrangements forged at the end of World War II. Based on the doctrine called the Nine Dashed Lines, drawn by Zhou Enlai in 1947, China maintains a claim of sovereignty over these shoals, reefs, islands and sandbars.

Despite vigorous objections by The Philippines in several international venues, China has continued its recent exertions of unilateral control over the Spratlys—constructing radar stations, surveillance and tracking towers, airstrips, military outposts, helicopter landing facilities, and a variety of high tech listening posts. The Philippine military has responded by posting special detachments of marines and other combat personnel on deliberately-grounded vessels. Heavily-armed, the Filipino Marines basic job is to keep a continuous watch on the activities of Chinese naval assets and other Chinese activities in the disputed waters. In return, the Chinese naval personnel watch the Filipinos.

In Vietnam, however, protests have turned to rioting as anti-Chinese sentiment has been inflamed by China’s insistence on constructing military facilities on the Paracel Islands—long claimed by Vietnam.

Adding fuel to the fire is the recent revelation that the Chinese energy firm China National Offshore Oil has discovered a gas field in waters about 90 miles south of the island of Hainan. After a blizzard of complaints from Vietnam and other Asian countries, China moved its massive, high-tech billion dollar floating deep sea rig from an area within Vietnamese waters to the area slightly north. The gas field—which sits about 1500 meters below the water’s surface—is estimated to be substantial, and if the area proves accessible, the field could eventually generate hundreds of billions in revenue for the Chinese company. Geologists involved with the project say that initial estimates are that the field could produce up to 56.5 million cubic feet of gas per day.

The discovery of such an economically-attractive oil or gas field in the contested waters will no doubt inflame the countries involved in the dispute. Vietnam is not the only country with claims of sovereignty to islands being exploited by the Chinese; Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia also make claims to some of the islands under dispute. The Spratlys have long been considered Philippine territory by most international authorities, but this has not dissuaded China from its recent aggressive attempts to exploit the area for commercial or military purposes.

Although most U.S. military analysts see little chance that the United States would engage in any form of proactive military action on the side of the Philippines, even if China continues to throw its weight around regarding the Spratlys, the U.S. may feel bound to back-up or protect Filipino combat units if a shooting war erupts and Filipino forces and assets are in peril.

China has ignored repeated requests at recent ASEAN meetings to bring the issue of the disputed islands up for discussion among Asian nations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—as well as several intermediaries from the United Nations—has requested that the several countries involved in the dispute find a way to negotiate a resolution to the crisis before tensions escalate further.

China has expressed anger that some western news organizations and some western governments have changed protocols—now calling the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea. China has said that this unilateral name-change is a deliberate attempt to minimize China rightful claim of economic and military influence in its own front yard.

Last fall the Philippines withdrew its ambassador in Beijing after China began a construction project on a small chain of shoals and rocks called Scarborough Shoal, which is about 100 miles west of Manila Bay. Officials in the Philippines said that the islands are well within its territory based on international guidelines and economic agreements. China asserted that the Scarborough Shoal and its related rocks are within “China’s intrinsic territory.”

China has so far refused to engage in any international discussions regarding either the Paracels or the Spratlys, but it publicly maintains that it has territorial authority over both sets of islands.

The Spratly Island group consists of scores of small islands—some large enough to allow for the construction of military outposts, docks and piers, and even airstrips. The Chinese have already built a variety of military and high-tech tracking posts in the Paracels, despite vigorous complaints by Vietnam in several international venues.

Most of the islands at the heart of the territorial dispute were largely forgotten after the end of World War II, when even the tiniest island was of strategic importance—either the Japanese, or to the allies. But many military analysts and foreign policy experts express concern that the value of all that potential oil and gas below the ocean may create economic pressures which are bringing the revenue value of those shoals, rocks, reefs and islands back to the forefront.

The photograph for this article was taken by U.S. Navy mass communication specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Troubles in the South China Sea; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 23, 2014.

A Looming War at Sea?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 11, 2014.