As I reported in August and September of last year, (see Part I, and Part II, and Part III), long-term trouble is brewing in the South China Sea.
Once again (or still), the center of the current dispute is the unfounded Chinese claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea in general, and over the Spratly Islands in particular. Lest the casual reader be fooled by the name, allow me to point out that despite the name China is really nowhere near the South China Sea. Indeed, the nearest point of Chinese land is over 500 miles from even the northernmost of the Spratly Islands.
Now, the standard international treaties clearly state that a nation is entitled to a 200-mile zone of economic exploitation of the sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, and the tiny Sultanate of Brunei are all within 200 miles of at least part of the Spratly Islands. China is over 500 miles away. In spite of this, China is claiming not just economic rights, but actual sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.
Yes, sovereignty, as though it were their own coastal waters. Sovereignty, meaning that the ships and aircraft of all other nations would require Chinese permission to transit any part of the South China Sea. And the South China Sea, my friends, is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Yes, now you see why this matters.
Nor is the issue of transit rights and sovereignty the actual crux of the issue. No, the true issue here is, (what else?), oil and gas. According to China's estimates, there are over 2 billion barrels of oil under the sea near the Spratly Islands. This would be enough to give China the second largest oil deposits in the world, very close behind Saudi Arabia. If you factor in the widespread belief that the Saudis are seriously exaggerating their deposits, this could leave China sitting on top of most of the oil remaining on the planet.
But there's more. The Spratly Islands area is also estimated to hold seabed deposits of over 2 Quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas. Yes, Quadrillion. That's a Billion with six more zeroes tacked on the end. In the blunt vernacular, "un chingo".
So, how hot are things getting this time? Well, the Vietnamese are accusing the Chinese of harassing their ships and cutting cables to exploration vessels. The Chinese, without bothering to deny the specifics, have simply stated that they acting within their rights. The pattern seems to be the same as that which China has used against the Japanese in the disputed Senkaku islands far to the north. First the Chinese send "fishing vessels" manned by military personnel. Then the fishing vessels act aggressively to provoke a confrontation, with ramming being a favorite tactic, and then the Chinese openly send in their navy to "protect the fishermen".
Vietnam, refusing to back away from the confrontation, has announced a "live-fire exercise" in the South China Sea next week. Last weekend, outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates openly warned of the risk of armed conflict in the Spratlys. Last year, the US Navy joined the Vietnamese in maneuvers in the South China Sea. This year, there is no mention of such joint activities.
The first 10 minutes of Counting The Cost at AJE has a very good review of the overall situation and the latest developments, including Chinese plans to deploy a huge new exploration rig to the Spratlys in July. More information is to be found in the AJE print article here.
There is an article in the Asia Times Online, Fight or Flight in the South China Sea, which is surprisingly critical of China for a publication based in Hong Kong.
NHK World English (Japan) has an interesting video report here.
In conclusion, dear reader, I will repeat what I said last summer. Keep an eye on this one. The question is not whether it will blow up, but simply when.