Should China continue to fight for rights to the South China Sea?

15 May

Clear across the broad width of Asia, on the western fringe of the Pacific Ocean, lies the third anchor of the Strategic Triangle: The South China Sea. Bordered on the North by Taiwan and China, on the east by the Philippine Islands, on the south by Indonesia and Malaysia, and on the west by Vietnam, the South China sea adjoins some of the most dynamic and powerful states in Asia. Long important as a crossroads for seaborne commerce, these waters are also thought to sit atop substantial reserves of oil and natural gas. While much larger than the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, the South China Sea is like them in two critical respects: its undersea resources are subject to overlapping and contested claims, and the states involved in these maritime disputes appear prepared to employ military force in the defence of what they view as vital national interests.

The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimate that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tonnes). In the years following the announcement by the ministry, the claims regarding the South China Sea islands intensified.

China’s optimistic view of the South China Sea’s hydrocarbon potential is not shared by most non-Chinese analysts. A 1993/1994 estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), for example, estimated the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the South China Sea at 28 billion barrels. The most optimistic western estimates place total oil resources (not proved reserves) in the Spratly Islands at 1-2 billion barrels. If all of this were proven to be economically recoverable, this hypothetically could yield a peak oil production level for the Spratly Islands of 180,000 – 370,000 barrels per day – the same order of magnitude as current production levels in Brunei or Vietnam. However, the rule-of-thumb for frontier areas suggests that the total could be significantly less.

There has been much debate over this area and much political tension, however, is China putting too many eggs in one basket by relying on this potential resource to fuel its ever growing economy?;jsessionid=AF1F616CA7D5FFA68F3DC3B439657903

Klare, M. T. (2002): Resource Wars – The New Landscape of Global Conflict. Owl Books, New York


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