Many citizens of China, the Philippines and Vietnam won’t have heard of the tiny scraps of land in the South China Sea that their governments compete with one another to claim. Certainly, almost none will ever set eyes on them.
So are places like Scarborough Shoal, the scene of Beijing and Manila’s latest maritime spat this month, really worth all the aggravation? And whose fault is it that these confrontations, which have the potential to start wars – and at the very least to kill fishermen and sailors – keep on happening?
Tiny, uninhabitable islets like Scarborough Shoal have little value per se, but the resources that surround them have plenty. The islets serve as pins in a map, around which governments can draw dotted lines and claim ownership over everything that lies within.
It’s these resources – the food even more, perhaps, than the oil or gas – that make stability in the South China Sea matter.
“The urgency is that these areas are being overfished and polluted, and that’s threatening the food supply of millions of people,” says Carlyle Thayer, an Emeritus Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy who closely follows disputes in the South China Sea. “That’s something these countries have to start taking seriously.”
Fishing grounds can, of course, be shared, just as undersea energy reserves can be co-developed. But as Thayer points out, marine environments must be managed, as well as shared. If there’s a perception that fishermen from other countries are abusing resources in disputed waters and endangering livelihoods and food supplies, then that will inevitably trigger an angry response from the other claimants.
So putting an end to the South China Sea disputes is important from a security perspective. But it’s also important from a food security perspective. As things stand, the South China risks a textbook “tragedy of the commons,” the destruction of common resources over which no single authority has control.
In addition, Thayer points out that oil licenses will be granted in the near future, potentially causing further upset. And all this comes as most of the interested parties are investing in their navies and, in China’s case, in paramilitary maritime agencies. “The South China Sea bathtub is being filled up more and more by Chinese control vessels, and by other countries’ patrol vessels and submarines,” he says.
This approaching spike in contestation makes it all the more important that a solution be found now, and the diplomatic activity of the past year suggests that one is attainable. ASEAN has been China’s main interlocutor on South China Sea issues, and Beijing made an important goodwill gesture last November when it put up $475 million to create a China-ASEAN Maritime Co-operation Fund. Several ASEAN-China expert working groups are also now in place.
The key process of 2012 is the drafting of a Code of Conduct (COC) governing behavior in the South China Sea – and envisaged as being more far-reaching than the existing Declaration of Conduct (DOC). Crucially, ASEAN is writing the new code. The association is due to present China with its proposals in July, and Beijing will be under political pressure to accept the ASEAN formula, rather than appear domineering by rejecting the plan. The existing process also excludes the United States, which is to China’s liking. Furthermore, “China has Cambodia in the box seat at the moment [as ASEAN chair],” adds Thayer.