The past year has been a difficult one for the coastal states of the South China Sea and there are number of indications that China’s decade long restraint is at an end. In 2010, rumours abounded that Beijing considered the South China Sea a ‘core interest,’ and China symbolically planted a flag on the seafloor (apparently mimicking Russian grandstanding in the Arctic). Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s hysterical response to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s restatement of US policy towards the dispute, meanwhile, seemed to be overkill.
The first half of 2011 has been similar. Chinese vessels, both civilian and government, have interfered with Philippine and Vietnamese survey activities in disputed waters, and Chinese vessels continue to fire at rival fishermen. This behaviour seems to confirm long-held suspicions about China’s posture towards the South China Sea; that as soon as China developed the military capability to dominate the South China Sea, it would. Now, following live fire exercises by Vietnam and as calls for greater military modernization grow in the Philippines, conflict in the South China Sea seems imminent.
However, we’ve seen this Chinese behaviour before, in the East China Sea, where China and Japan dispute the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the sea waters that surround them. Importantly, the escalation of tension in that dispute resulted in cooperation, not conflict. The dispute over energy resources began in earnest in 2004 after Japan discovered a Chinese drilling platform at the Chunxiao gas field, within 200 nautical miles of Japan’s coast, but just outside the median line that marked the limit of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone claim in its domestic law.
When it became apparent that commercially viable resources existed at Chunxiao, Tokyo insisted Beijing cease operations and jointly develop the field with Japan. To ascertain the extent of the undersea resources, Tokyo commissioned the Norwegian flagged Ramform Victory to conduct a thorough survey of the median line area near the Chunxiao field. During this survey, the Ramform Victory was stalked on several occasions by Chinese naval vessels and confronted on one occasion by a military vessel disguised as a research ship. Furthermore, in September 2005 a highly advanced Sovremennyy destroyer targeted a P3-C Orion patrol plane that passed over the Chunxiao field. As a consequence of these events, Japan galvanized its efforts to access resources in the East China Sea. Aerial patrols of the area increased and Tokyo backed away from its median line claim in favour of a full 200 nautical miles, awarded concession blocks adjacent to the median line to Teikoku Oil, and set about passing the laws required to protect Japanese oil companies working in the East China Sea.
Predictably, this resulted in histrionics from Beijing. Somewhat surprising however, was that as Japan set about preparing to drill for gas in the disputed area, negotiations between the two began to bear fruit. After the Diet passed the Law on Establishing Safety Areas for Maritime Structures in April 2007 – which permitted Japan to outline safety zones around drilling installations and tasked the coast guard with expelling vessels that violated these zones – negotiations occurred more frequently and yielded tangible results. Finally, in June 2008 the two sides announced a joint development arrangement that spelled out the sharing of resources at Chunxiao and outlined a joint development zone to the north that straddled the median line.
Of course, the agreement isn’t perfect. It hasn’t yet been implemented due to domestic political opposition in China, and Japan’s reluctance to surrender claims to ownership of the Chunxiao field. Maritime tensions also persist. Japan’s coast guard research vessel, the Shoyo was confronted twice by Chinese vessels in 2010, the latter incident coinciding with the collision of a Chinese fishing boat with a Japanese coast guard vessel. However, this shouldn’t detract from the lesson learned. States bargain over disputed maritime space as they would any other issue in international politics. States will posture, threaten and engage in low level demonstrations of military force to reinforce their claim and improve their lot. While dangerous, this behaviour doesn’t mean that conflict is inevitable, nor does it prevent bilateral talks at the bureaucratic and official levels.
While some argue that resources drive maritime disputes, there’s little evidence to support the view that there is sufficient oil and gas in the South China Sea to warrant a resource war. More likely, claimant states recognize that unilateral resource development by a rival state is damaging to their claim to the disputed area, not because it ‘steals’ resources, but because by ignoring such activity states could be accused of surrendering their claim to the area. In fact, one could argue that it was the discovery of commercially viable resources in the East China Sea that led to the June 2008 consensus between China and Japan in the first place. So, too it will be in the South China Sea, once the bargaining and posturing has finished. If China’s resource needs are as dire as some suggest, Beijing may in fact be pushing for cooperative development of offshore resources, rather than trying to stop production entirely. After all, Vietnam, China and the Philippines all buy their oil and gas from the same international market place. Production in the South China Sea lowers these prices; delayed exploitation due to concerns over sovereignty and jurisdiction does not. Therefore we can expect limited cooperation on oil and gas exploration, perhaps in a bilateral Sino-Vietnamese version of the failed Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking which included the Philippines.
The comparison does, however, raise some interesting questions about China’s relations with its neighbours. Why have Chinese vessels (allegedly) cut the sonar cables of Philippine and Vietnamese vessels while Japanese survey vessels have been left unharmed? Is it because recent Japanese surveys, have been conducted by government vessels, rather than civilian ones? Is it because Japan is a US military ally of the first order? In either case, this difference may support calls in Vietnam and the Philippines for the development of stronger survey capabilities, stronger naval capabilities and above all to seek closer defence ties with the United States. However, these too are bargaining tools. When Japan strengthened its position, China moved to cooperate, albeit in a limited form. The same may soon occur in the South China Sea.
James Manicom is a visiting researcher at the Ocean Policy Research Foundation in Tokyo and a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.