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 Ministry, the region around the Spratly Islands holds oil and natural gas reserves of approximately 17.7 billion tons. If this figure is correct, the area would form the fourth largest reserve bed in the world. While most of the reserves are currently not exploitable due to their position beneath the oceanic crust in sedimentary beds, few doubt that the necessary technology will be available in the near future. 

The dispute is symptomatic for regional security and order in two ways. First, the Chinese ‘win-win’ rhetoric, which emphasizes the mutual benefit of Beijing’s economic and political relations with other states, is mere window dressing when its core national interests are at stake. Second, the sovereignty conflict shows the fallacy of multilateralism rhetoric in China-Southeast Asia relations. Contrary to a commonly held view, attempts by the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to provide an effective multilateral framework for conflict management have not resulted in a de-escalation of tensions or indeed moved the dispute closer to a sustainable solution. 

Following the oil crisis in the early 1970s, discovery of crude oil in the Spratly Islands soon transformed the area into one of the hotly contested among its claimants. When German merchants first mapped and surveyed the Spratly Islands in the early twentieth century, they found no signs of human habitation. Today, military forces from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines occupy about 45 of the islands. Brunei has claimed an Exclusive Economic Zone in the south-eastern part of the region without maintaining a military presence. The dispute is inevitably linked to China’s rise and its military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region. In recent years, the Chinese navy has intensified its patrols throughout the area and has shown an increasing readiness and willingness to confront other nations for control within the contested island chains. 

The dispute has its roots in the early twentieth century when Chinese authorities began to assert Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. This triggered protest by the Vietnamese court at Hue, which had established its control over the islands well before the French conquests of Vietnam. In the 1930s, while China began to publish maps declaring its territorial claims in the South China Sea, French authorities in Indochina also began to set up weather stations on and send garrisons to the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

The dispute gained prominence in 1978, when the Philippines set out its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), formally including the island Kalayaan in the Spratlys. An EEZ extends to a distance of 200 nautical miles (370 km) beyond a coastal state’s 12-mile territorial sea, and grants sovereign rights over the natural resources and exploitation in the zone, while preserving the freedom of navigation. Several coastal states had claimed EEZs since the 1940s, but it was not until 1982 that the third UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) codified the EEZ.

The controversy over the Spratly Islands remained relatively dormant until 1988, when China and Vietnam clashed at the Johnson Reef; several Vietnamese boats sank and over 70 sailors died. Since then, hostilities in the South China Sea have regularly erupted, most prominently between China and the Philippines. The Philippines considers China’s occupation of the Mischief Reef in 1995 and its repeated incursions into Scarborough Reef since 1997 as direct assaults on Philippine territory. Conflicts arose as a result. In 1996, Chinese ships engaged in a naval battle with a Philippine gunboat near the Campones Island. In 1998, the Philippine navy arrested Chinese fishermen off the Scarborough Shoal, and Vietnamese soldiers fired on a Philippine fishing boat near the Tennent (Pigeon) Reef. Since then, actors in the region have taken action to avoid military confrontation, but provocations still occur regularly. For example, in February 2011, Vietnam protested over a Chinese military drill near the Spratly Islands, claiming that the exercise was a violation of its sovereignty over the archipelago. Despite the many conflicts in the region, it is unlikely that any of the Southeast Asian claimants would be in a position to challenge China militarily if Beijing decides to use force in defence of its claim. Therefore, it can be said that the relative peace in the South China Sea is largely the result of deterrence of action from the Chinese side.

The essential problem is simple: the claimants disagree about the distribution of the Spratly Islands. While Beijing has repeatedly stated that China owns sovereignty and jurisdiction over the island and adjacent waters, other nations involved in the dispute contradict this claim, basing their responses on historical or legal arguments. At the core of the sovereignty dispute lies the so-called “nine-dash line”, as defined by nine dashes on Chinese maps. This U-shaped line indicates China’s claims to over 80 percent of the South China Sea. The original line, which was denoted by 11 dots, was first introduced by the Kuomintang government in 1947, and it included regions in the Gulf of Tonkin off of Vietnam’s northern coast. China later altered it by deleting two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin. However, it was only in May 2009 that China issued an official note concerning the nine-dash line, formally bringing the nine-dash line map to global attention. Beijing’s declaration of the international significance of this line was a response to Malaysia and Vietnam’s joint submission to the United Nations that manifests their own claims in the South China Sea. In early 2010, Chinese officials appeared to have considered the idea of elevating China’s claims in the South China Sea to a “core” national interest, which would put it on par with Tibet and Taiwan. Beijing has never publicly confirmed this. Neither, however, has it made a formal denial despite the apprehension aroused in the region. In April 2011, the Philippines filed a formal protest in the United Nations over China’s nine-dash line. According to the contested map, the Chinese-claimed waters include several oil, natural gas, and condensate fields of the Philippines (Malampaya and Camago), Malaysia (fields offshore Sarawak), Indonesia (Natuna Islands) and Vietnam (several blocks off the Vietnamese coast).