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Thayer South China Sea: The Drivers Behind Current Tensions

Thayer South China Sea: The Drivers Behind Current Tensions

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An analysis of the drivers behind rising tensions in the South China Sea.
An analysis of the drivers behind rising tensions in the South China Sea.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on May 23, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Background Briefing:South China Sea: The DriversBehind Current TensionsCarlyle A. ThayerMay 18, 2013
[client name deleted]- Why are these various territorial disputes happening now and getting noisier?Some have cited factors such as China's rise, the competition for resources, theUnited States' Asia pivot. Do you agree and what are the key/real factors in youropinion? What other factors are at play?ANSWER: I think the starting point to answer your question 1992 when China passeda domestic Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone in anticipation of thecoming into effect of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. UNCLOSchanged the maritime ballgame by providing for specific maritime zones and varyinglevels of sovereign jurisdiction.
In the 1990s there was a notable “scramble for theSpratlys” in which Vietn
am and China occupied as many features (islets and rocks)above high tide as they could. This then resulted in exaggerated claims tosovereignty over islands, rocks and features in the South China Sea by most of thelittoral states. These claims resulted in overlapping zones of maritime jurisdiction.The first ASEAN statement on the South China Sea was issued in 1992 in response totensions arising between China and Vietnam over oil exploration in the South ChinaSea. China granted the US-based Crestone Energy Corporation a concession in an
area overlapping Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
 I would same the next turning point came in 2009 in response to the May 13
 deadline by the United Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Stateswishing to claim an extended continental shelf beyond their 200 nautical mile EEZwere invited to make a submission. Vietnam and Malaysia lodged a joint submissionfor the area around the Spratly Islands and Vietnam issues a separate submissioncovering the area near
the Paracels. Both the Philippines and China objected. China’s
objection was accompanied by the tabling of a nine-dash line u-shaped map. In 1947the Republic of China issued a map with eleven dash lines including approximately80 per cent of the South Ch
ina Sea. This map was adopted by the People’s Republic
of China after 1949; but it was only in May 2009 that it was officially tabled with theUN. China then began to assertively pursue its claims to sovereign jurisdiction bytwice cutting the cable of sei
smic research ships operating in Vietnam’s EEZ, and
threatening to ram an oil exploration in Filipino waters.
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
Today’s tensions are a culmination of over two decades of minor confrontations and
skirmishes over sovereign jurisdiction over resources in overlapping maritime claims.In the late 1990s, for example, the Philippines took very heavy handed action againstChinese fishermen in its waters. It rammed and sunk fishing craft; this resulted infatalities. Domestic nationalism allied to sovereignty claims is a driver.
To answer your question: today’s tensions are more serious because of the growth
of Chinese civilian maritime enforcement capabilities (China Marine Surveillance andFishery Law Enforcement Command), rising domestic nationalism in China, andbureaucratic completion by at leave five Chinese national agencies and their localauthorities.China needs energy and issues estimates of the oil and gas reserves that are of anorder of magnitude seven times greater than US estimates. No real exploration workhas been carried out to confirm these guess estimates. China views the South ChinaSea as energy rich and charges Vietnam and the Philippines with plundering of itsresources when they engage foreigners to exploit hydrocarbon resources. Soresource nationalism is one driver.China also needs fish for human consumption. The fish stock in the South China Seais being depleted by over fishing and marine pollution. Chinese fishermen are forcedto move south. They sail in larger vessels accompanied by mother ships andparamilitary escorts. This leads to clashes.Every year since the late 1990s China has issues a unilateral fishing ban in waterssouth of the Paracels from May to August. This was initially aimed at Chinesefishermen to preserve the fish stock during the spawning season. Around 2006-97China began to take increasingly aggressive action against Vietnamese fishing craftthat intruded into waters around the Paracels. Food security is a second driver.The United States only features in this analysis when the Obama Administrationcame into office. First it objected to Chinese political pressure on American oilcompanies designed to coerce them from assisting Vietnam in the development of its offshore oil resources. The US made it clear it could resist such pressures. Second,the Obama Administration continued past US policy of conducting naval and air
surveillance in China’s EEZ. This is perfectly legal in international law. In May 2009
China challenged the USNS
operating in it EEZ south of Hainan.July 2012 marks a major turning point for the US. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
intervened at the ASEAN Regional Forum declaring that the US had a “nationalinterest” in the South China Sea and would protect freedom of navigation and
d lawful commerce. The later US policy of rebalancing (“pivot” –
a term no
longer used by US officialdom) only added oil to the fire from China’s point of view.
 The impact of the Global Financial Crisis on the US reportedly has emboldened someChinese to assert that now is the time to press a declining United States. China seeksto undermine US alliances and assurances to Southeast Asia.Finally, China has continually if gradually encroached on the Philippines. It occupiedMischief Reef in 2005 and annexed Scarborough Shoal last year. China nowmaintains a permanent paramilitary naval presence at the shoal. It has declared anexclusion zone to prohibit Filipino fishermen from using their traditional grounds.

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