Friday, August 17, 2012

Big Trouble in Little South China Sea

Greetings, dear reader, and apologies for the long hiatus. Your faithful marsupial correspondent has been occupied with the tedious business of earning a (marginal) living.

It's been a year since I last wrote about the situation in the South China Sea. That gap was due not to a lack of events, but rather to my perception of utter disinterest in the subject on the part of my fellow Americans. We do have a serious blind spot when it comes to events outside our own borders. None the less, with events continuing apace, the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea has even started to appear in the mainstream corporate media. And what a report that is. Do you like the header? "BATTLELAND - Where military intelligence is not a contradiction in terms". News Flash, sweethearts; military intelligence is always a contradiction in terms.

But my objection is not to the silly trappings of the thing, but rather to the slipshod manner in which the facts are presented. It's disturbing to note that this video, which is essentially a Taiwanese propaganda cartoon, actually contains more useful information, (after the first 35 seconds of silliness), than the print report in Time linked above.

  I'm going to include here a graphic that I used in my first post on the South China Sea, about two years ago. The map is a beast, but it's needed to show the relationships.

Map courtesy of Wikimedia

Look in the center, near the top. See that blob of land with the pipeline running north-east up to Hong Kong and Macao? That's Hainan Island, and part of the People's Republic of China, (henceforth the PRC, to distinguish it from Taiwan, which is also has claims in the Spratly Islands).

Now look down and to the right from Hainan. See the Paracel Islands? Those are (mostly) within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the PRC, as measured from Hainan Island. Note, however, that the Paracel Islands are also (mostly) within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam. The PRC seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in a brief campaign during the mid-1970's, and has held them since then. It was here, in the Paracel Islands, that the new Chinese garrison was recently emplaced, as described in the MSM story linked above.

Now look further to the right and down a bit, see Scarborough Reef, just west of the Philippines? That was the location of the confrontation between the PRC and the Philippines in May of this year (2012). See this article in the Asia Times Online for a discussion of that altercation, (and notice how this is treated as a very serious issue by Asians, in sharp contrast to the casually dismissive attitude of US media). Here, however, the situation regarding boundaries is very different, and really quite unambiguous. Scarborough Reef is within, (again just barely), the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Phillipines, but roughly 600 miles from Hainan Island, the nearest point of land claimed by the PRC. So what is the PRC claim based upon? History. The People's Republic of China asserts that Scarborough was historically Chinese, and therefore modern China is entitled to claim it.

OK, for the last hotspot, look down and to the left from Scarborough Reef to the legend "South China Sea". Directly below that is a mass of colored dots, and legends stating "occupied by" followed by the names of the five main disputants, and a legend marking Mischief Reef. That whole area is the Spratly Islands, although it bears repeating that the word "islands" is a highly optimistic label. The Spratlys consist mostly of partly-submerged islets, rocks, and reefs. What few actual islands exist are low coral mounds, never more than 5 or 6 meters, (call it 15-20 feet), above sea level. Most are partly submerged at high tide. Although the Spratly Islands are spread over 170,000 square kilometers of sea, they total less than 10 square kilometers of land.

So, you ask, if they're just a collection of wet rocks and bottom-ripping reefs in the middle of god-forsaken nowhere, why all the fuss? There are three reasons.

First, right of passage. The South China Sea is the second busiest shipping lane on the surface of planet Earth. More than half of the oil which transits the oceans of the world in the hulls of the so-called supertankers, passes through the South China Sea at some point during its journey.

Second, fish. The world's fisheries are being depleted at a frightening rate, with multiple staple food species, such as the blue fin tuna, staggering on the edge of utter collapse. Some of the Asian nations which are party to the disputes in the South China Sea depend heavily upon fishing to feed their growing populations. Any government which cannot feed its people cannot maintain itself in power for long.

Third, oil and gas, the single biggest cause of war and misery in the world today.  In July of 2011, retired US diplomat David Brown penned an interesting article in the Asia Times Online, in which he asserted -

Chinese petroleum geologists are thinking big, however. Luo Donghong, a senior manager of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), predicts that China will confirm reserves of 22 billion barrels of oil in South China Sea deepwater fields by 2020, according to Bloomberg. That's half again the size of Daqing, China's largest onshore oilfield - which is now nearly depleted. CNOOC's Zhang Gongcheng says upwards of 200 trillion cubic meters of natural gas are in the South China Sea seabed as well, the Economist reports.

So, 22 billion barrels of oil, and 200 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. But there's more. There are also enormous deposits of Methane Hydrates, what some have called, "the ice that burns". What the US Department of Energy calls "the gas resource of the future". (And also, potentially, the environmental disaster of the future, but I suppose we can burn that bridge when we come to it. After all, we've never planned ahead for such problems before, why start now?)

While technologies for the extraction of usable energy from methane hydrate deposits have yet to be developed, a PRC report in 2007 estimated that the methane hydrate deposits found in the South China Sea so far could hold as much energy as 10 billion tons of oil. At roughly 6 barrels per ton, (a conservative estimate), that's the equivalent of 60 billion barrels of oil.

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