The Spratly Islands Dispute: Order-Building on China’s terms?

As the result of China’s participation in world trade and its consequent growing demand for overseas energy and raw materials, the South China Sea has become an increasingly important resource for Beijing. China’s demand for imported energy resources is predicted to rise to 500 million tons of oil imports and over 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas by 2020. For comparison, in 2009 China imported 204 million tons of oil and just about 5 billion cubic meters of natural gas.  Because of its rapidly increasing energy consumption, China will be more actively involved in oil and gas exploration in its adjacent sea areas and in securing the oil supply routes at sea. Other claimants, of course, value this resource for the same reasons and, just as in China’s case, have seen nationalism and geostrategic interests enter their policy equations. Therefore, the South China Sea has been host to territorial disputes that are among the most contentious and volatile in the Asia-Pacific theater. Amid the intense competitions for its vast natural resources, the South China Sea’s role in regional security and stability has never been more important.

At the heart of these disputes lie the Spratly Islands–a collection of coral reefs, atolls, islets, islands, and sand bars scattered over a sea zone of some 410,000 square kilometers. This area is claimed, in whole or in part, by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Although the total area of the islands does not exceed ten square kilometres, the Spratly Islands’ geostrategic and economic significance are invaluable. Linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the South China Sea sees passage of nearly 50 percent of global merchant traffic and 80 percent of crude oil transports en route to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Securing sovereignty over the Spratly Islands equates to direct control over some of the world’s most important sea-lanes. Furthermore, the islands are set amid some of the world’s most productive fishing grounds and may prove to be rich in undersea oil and gas resources. The exact size of the deposits is not yet known, but according to a frequently cited estimate by China’s Geology and Mineral Resources

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