The South China Sea: China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, & the Philippines all stake claim over oil-rich waters (REPORT)
(HN, April 11, 2012) -- A cold-war `esque conflict is brewing in the area known as the South China Sea, though recently US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said there is no such scale of a dispute brewing. It might be described then as an inter-Asia issue with China claiming the entire South China Sea for itself, with Taiwan and four ASEAN members - the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam - also making overlapping claims to parts of the territory.
The Philippines and China are contesting sovereignty over a small group of rock formations known as Scarborough Shoal which the Philippines calls the Panatag Shoal but what China call's Huangyan Island. This weekend, Philippine Navy officials said eight Chinese fishing vessels had been found there, 124 nautical miles off the coast of Zambales province and the country’s largest warship, the US Hamilton-class cutter Gregorio del Pilar, was sent to investigate.
The fishermen claim they were seeking shelter from bad weather, and were prevented from entering the lagoon by a Philippine Naval gunboat. A boarding party found endangered marine species on the ships, and a standoff ensued after China sent two surveillance vessels to the area to prevent the arrest of its nationals, Vice Admiral Alexander P. Pama of the Philippine Navy told reporters at a briefing.
On Wednesday in Manila, the Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario met with the Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing over the matter and both made a statement saying "We resolve to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue", though neither country is backing down from territorial claims to the Scarborough Shoal region.
The dispute is one of a myriad of conflicting claims over islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea pitting China against its Asian neighbors who, last year using patrol boats to disrupt hydrocarbon survey activities chasing away a ship working for Forum Energy off the Philippines and slicing cables of a vessel doing work for Vietnam. Some of the claims have drawn the United States to press China over sovereignty.
Both of the countries reject China's map of the South China Sea as a basis for joint development of oil and gas resources, and have pushed ahead with exploration work, leading to more confrontations as China expands the use of its marine surveillance vessels.
Also at play are the Spratly Islands, a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea. The archipelago is situated off the coasts of the Philippines and Malaysia, about one third of the way from there to Vietnam - amounting to less than four square kilometers of land area over more than 425,000 square kilometers of ocean. Such small, remote islands have little economic value in themselves, but are important in establishing international boundaries.
The islands stand as rich fishing grounds, and initial surveys indicate the islands may contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas which a 2008 US Energy Information Agency report said could be as much as 213 billion barrels of oil.
About 45 of the islands are occupied by small numbers of military forces from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei.
Tension has risen in the past two years over worries China is becoming more assertive in its claims to the area as needs for oil and gas rise in the population booming Communist nation in and as more goods are needed in the second largest nation on earth.
Straddling the Spratly archipelago are also the main shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East and the control of these lanes has not been lost on those claiming sovereignty over these waters.
The stakes have risen further since the US last year began refocusing its military attention on Asia, strengthening ties with the Philippines and Australia. The US has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and has boosted military relations with Vietnam in recent years.
On Tuesday, Chinese state media said a Chinese cruise ship, the `Scent of Princess Coconut', had completed a trial voyage to the Paracel Islands - Hoang Sa in Vietnamese - a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs that both Vietnam and China claim as theirs since ancient times.
The Scent of Princess Coconut docked at a port in the Chinese southern island of Hainan on Monday after the trip. The proposed opening of the Paracel Islands to tourism by China could add to the long-standing tension, which has drawn the United States into pressing China over the issue.
The Japanese-built ship carried out a three-day voyage to the northern shoals of the Paracels, though China said there was no firm timetable for a launch of such regular cruises. Initial Chinese plans call for ships to visit Woody Island, called Yongxing Island by China, though tourists would not be allowed to leave their boat.
Vietnam's foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said Monday that the trip was "illegal and seriously violates Vietnam's sovereignty".
China and South Vietnam once administered different parts of the Paracels, but after a brief conflict in 1974, Beijing took control of the entire group of islands - although this remains disputed by Hanoi.
Last month, China detained 21 crew sailing on two Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracels, sparking an angry rebuke from Hanoi.
Complicating matters as well are recent claims by both India and Russia which have both, in the past few months announced their own plans to go ahead with oil exploration in the South China Sea, in partnership with Vietnam. China has vocally asked both nations to step aside saying, "China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea".
Although not an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations) nation member, Chinese President Hu Jintao travelled to Phnom Penh ahead of the Asia bodies meeting in Cambodia last week to press his case over the South China Sea with Prime Minister Hun Sen - asking that ASEAN work to resolve the dispute among its members. ASEAN, for its part has stated that it believes the issue should be discussed and solved among those members making claims to the area directly.