China steps up its tide of influence in South China Sea

Posted on July 16, 2012


Slowly but surely the diplomatic temperature in the South China Sea is rising. Nowhere else in the world is energy security so dependent upon what might lie beneath the sea and upon the control and freedom of it shipping lanes.

Energy security is the comfort that a country gets from knowing that consumers will have reliable access to adequate, affordable and quality energy, from a variety of sources in peacetime and in war.

Against that backdrop we are really starting to see the beginnings of the new broader security balance between a rising China and an incumbent United States.

The failure of the Association of South East Asian Nations annual meeting to produce an agreed statement has highlighted the competing claims made by China and a number of ASEAN members to different parts of the South China Sea.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei and China all make competing claims to different parts of the South China Sea. China claims almost all of it, even if much of it is closer to other countries. Many are concerned China’s claims reflect a kind of Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’.

Central to each countries’ claims is the ownership of small groups of islands. All of them are tiny. Many of them are only visible at very low tide. But as small and submerged as they are, they have been the sites, quite literally and recently, of gunboat diplomacy and the odd angry shot.

Complicating those claims is international law. Not only do the countries’ various claims compete, but the legal bases upon which they are made are different.

What’s more, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea supports many of the claims to varying degrees – except, for the most part, those made by China. But then China’s view of international law – based on its own ancient traditions, history and place in the world – differs from the predominantly Western view which has shaped international law over the past several centuries.

It is no surprise then that, although China is a signatory to UNCLOS, it has been more lukewarm on supporting the declaration. Indeed, China doesn’t want its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines mentioned at the summit. While for its part, the US has been keen to encourage just that discussion.

Maybe even less surprising is that China started 6 days of aerial and naval military exercises on on Tuesday.

Even if the contested oil and gas resources do exist and can be developed – China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines would all still overwhelmingly rely on shipping to import the vast bulk of their oil and gas.

Given the important role that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines play in the US security posture in Asia, in particular in balancing China’s rising power, it’s not difficult to see how these sea lanes are – as US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said – so “critically important” to the US.

Of course, any successful claim over those disputed islands which each country claims in the South China Sea, would help to determine the extent to which the claimant can exploit the resources below and around them. However, it would also allow each state to claim its territorial waters around the islands.

Although international law permits innocent navigation through territorial waters, it would not be difficult to imagine that a state might argue that oil tankers and LNG carriers would fall foul of this exception in a crisis. And it’s certainly not difficult to see how a crisis can quickly escalate when oil and gas supplies are threatened.

And that’s where it becomes really interesting for Australia. Any escalation would have obvious consequences for Australian trade with the region, and not just in oil and gas, as reliant as we are on shipping. It would also have the potential to suck Australia in, physically, to a broader conflict involving one or more traditional allies, and China, the emerging regional power and our long-term primary trading partner.

Australia is uniquely leveraged in these disputes. As a country we need to play our part in ensuring that they are resolved in a manner sensitive to China, but consistent with our national interest and international law.

Chris Flynn