Territorial disputes for many countries in the South China Sea has become a hot issue for several years until today. The South China Sea, which mostly consists of ASEAN countries and part of the Asia Pacific region, is currently facing a unilateral claim from China. The dispute is not an intra-ASEAN conflict but involves some ASEAN members, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam, and the Philippines, against China (outside ASEAN) as an aggressive claimant in the South China Sea. Indonesia is also indirectly involved (as a non-claimant state) because fishers from China often engage in Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF) activity in the North Natuna Sea – the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone.
The issues in the South China Sea have drawn global condemnation as it is considered that China could threaten the peace and security of the ASEAN region. Furthermore, the issues provoked the United States and its allies to stabilize the ASEAN regional security to maintain peace and security in the Asia Pacific region through a trilateral defence pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) in September 2021. Under the pact, the United States and the United Kingdom will assist Australia in developing nuclear-powered submarines and deploying allied military forces to the Asia Pacific region. This action marks a new Cold War era in the Asia Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea region.
Then the question: is it really just a matter of peace and security issues? We have to look at the geopolitics aspect of the South China Sea from another perspective for the answer. The South China Sea is an area that has abundant natural resources, especially energy resources. China and the ASEAN countries knew that the South China Sea has potential oil and natural gas on the seabed. Quoted from the Asia Maritime Transparency Maritime Initiative, the US Energy Information Agency has estimated that the South China Sea holds about 190 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of proven and probable oil reserves. The amount of energy reserves is fantastic and has economic value for any country with territory in the South China Sea.
On the other hand, the total final consumption (TFC) of energy by source in the Asia Pacific region reached almost 175 million Terajoules (TJ) in 2019 and is projected to increase in proportion to the population and economic growth in the Asia Pacific. The Asia Pacific region is home to about 60 percent of the global population. With this fact, many countries in the Asia Pacific are competing to find energy resources to meet their needs, as depicted in the South China Sea dispute to claim energy resources.
China, which also lies in the Asia Pacific region, has the same goal of obtaining energy resources in the South China Sea. China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea is certainly aimed to secure energy resources to meet China’s energy needs. In 2014, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) conducted a deepwater drilling rig in the Vietnamese waters and began seafloor drilling operations for natural gas. The location of the drilling activity is in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and only almost 17 nautical miles from Triton Island in the South China Sea. Then in April 2021, it was reported that Chinese scientists on a marine research vessel “Sea Bull II” had drilled deep in the South China Sea to retrieve sediment core from the seabed. This drilling activity is to explore natural gas hydrate resources in the seabed. China is undoubtedly looking for evidence of energy resources in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the US and its allies do not directly target the energy resources in the South China Sea. The US and its allies are interested in blocking China’s influence in the Asia Pacific. More than 30% of global maritime crude oil trade moves through the South China Sea, including crude oil trade from Europe, the Middle East, to the United States. In other words, the US and its allies are interested in securing South China Sea passage and ensuring energy supply for the US and its allies.
The Middle East considers that the South China Sea is a major trade route. In 2016, crude oil shipments from Saudi Arabia mostly passed through the South China Sea. In addition, around 90% of Japan and South Korea’s imported crude oil from Middle Eastern suppliers is transported through the Strait of Malacca and then the South China Sea. With this fact, the security of the South China Sea is essential for energy supply in the Asia Pacific region.
The conflict in the South China Sea must be resolved immediately through diplomatic mechanisms by the Asian Pacific countries. No one can unilaterally control the South China Sea with the defence power of each country. Moreover, making territorial claims that are contrary to the sovereign rights and international law of the sea. The Asia Pacific countries are responsible for maintaining peace and security because the South China Sea has a vital role in energy security in the Asia Pacific region and globally.
Disclaimer: This opinion piece is the author(s) own and does not necessarily represent opinions of the Purnomo Yusgiantoro Center (PYC).
This opinion has been published on Modern Diplomacy.
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