Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flashpoint Spratly Islands

As the competition for remaining deposits of crude oil and natural gas accelerates, an obscure group of reefs and shoals in the South China Sea may well become an important and much-contested center of attention.

The so-called Spratly Islands group consists of over 750 reefs, shoals, atolls, islets and islands at the far south end of the South China Sea. Amusingly enough, the total land area of all of these is less than 4 square kilometers. There is no indigenous population, but approximately 50 "islands" are garrisoned by one of the contending nations.

China, Taiwan, the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Vietnam have conflicting claims to all or part of the Spratlys, and the Sultanate of Brunei has claimed a fishing zone which includes the southern part of the archipelago.

Map courtesy of Wikimedia

The white symbols are existing gas wells, the black ones are existing oil wells, and the thin blank lines connecting them to the shore are pipelines. As you can see, the area all around the Spratlys has been developed.

Official sources in the West have the oil and gas deposits in the Spratlys listed as "unknown", but this is a thin lie at best. In truth it has been known at least since the 1970's, (and possibly 40 years earlier than that), that enormous deposits of oil and gas lay under the Spratlys; it has simply never been economically advantageous to exploit those resources.

According to the Chinese, however, the oil and gas deposits under the Spratlys total nearly 18 billion tons, as compared to a total of roughly 13 billion tons for Kuwait, which is considered an oil and gas giant.

In 1988, Vietnam and China fought a brisk little series of skirmishes near Johnson South Reef, in which the Vietnamese were defeated, with the loss of three small patrol vessels.

In 1995, the Chinese seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines.

So why am I bringing this up now? Because there is again a very real potential for conflict over the Spratlys in the near future. Specifically, the USA is in the process of grooming Vietnam to act as its proxy in the region.

First came the announcement that the USA would sell civilian nuclear technology to Vietnam.

Then about 3 weeks ago, on July 23, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced that that the U.S. had a "national interest in... respect for international law in the South China Sea" and supported a regional solution to the dispute. China responded by saying that the US offer to mediate the dispute was "an attack on China".

An article in the Telegraph on Sunday noted that the US and Vietnam are to hold joint naval exercises in the area, and this at a time when relations between the US and China are already rather strained over US sales of military hardware to Taiwan.

Interesting times, dear readers, we live in interesting times.

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