The South China Sea Resource War

Over the past 18 months, a dispute surrounding geopolitical resources has consumed several states bordering the South China Sea. This makes one thing clear: there brews a potentially combative situation that will not impasse without collective cooperation on the far Southeast Asian peninsula. The situation grew tense as China took steps to extend its hold on the disputed territory (by reclaiming land around smaller inlets) and provoked similar behaviour by its neighbours who have also sought to further their expanse.

Territorial disputes along the South China Sea have been in effect for years. Several parties continue to squabble over claims to islands, reefs, and shoals that promise mineral wealth and more. Though China claims the majority of islets with a nine-dash line that extends toward Borneo (a vast area encompassing 2 million sq. km. of sea), countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines are in the battle to claim ownership of various islands alongside. The interests of nations involve gaining access to productive fishing grounds, the exploitation of crude oil and natural gas underneath the waters (although the actual volume of deposits remains unconfirmed), and acquiring strategic control of important shipping lanes. States surrounding the South China Sea have proposed expansionist plans that involve investing billions of dollars to exploit crude oil and natural gas offshore, yet no one truly knows what lies ‘down there’ and estimates vary considerably.

In retrospect, resource wars such as this are not uncommon, especially as we continue to ride the wave of capitalism; there are now dwindling energy supplies with rising needs, and upcoming water crises  as shortages have become apparent. As countries are eyeing for the world’s diminishing resources – fossil fuels, minerals, land and water–we must stop and consider at what cost? Maritime clashes over shoals and reefs that hold mineral value in the South China Sea have already killed dozens, and this is simply one territorial dispute among several. There appears to be a deadlock on the current situation, and without a formal, multilateral agreement imposed by an international body, the issue will not resolve.

The overriding consensus has been to take the matter to an international arbitrator, and though the Philippines did take China to court this summer through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China refused to comply as it claimed the South China Sea is not covered by the treaty. Since then, the nation has refused to participate in any discussions of territorial claim.

China continues to back its claim to the waters with such historical justifications. A recent report in Time Magazine stated,

“The commander of the Chinese navy’s North Sea fleet added that the vast waterway has been Chinese from the time of the Han dynasty, which ruled from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220.”

Alternatively, it was also said, “the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.”

But does the name say it all? Given this premise, one could argue that perhaps the Indian Ocean belongs solely to India.

For centuries colonial powers were obsessed with claiming lands and water resources for their economic and political importance. That was a time when a leader and cartographer could simply point to areas of interest and seek claim. Are we really that much different today? It seems a similar pattern exists, perhaps not as drastic, when it comes to claiming freshwater resources in particular. Disputes over who gets what are rampant in many regions of the world, especially those that are most vulnerable.

Unfortunately and dishearteningly, situations of territorial claim make me question whether our world has been reduced and butchered down to only a handful of desired destinations that have strategic and economic value in the eyes of 21st century leaders, many of whom believe their claims can be made with the threat of hard power.

Latest posts by Anuja Kapoor (see all)