Playing nice: disputes in the South and East China Seas

Maritime disputes in East Asia have been hugely detrimental to accessing the energy-rich reserves in the South and East China Seas. China needs to move beyond its wariness over sharing security responsibilities in order to solve the resource problem.

Kailash Prasad
5 August 2013

Despite growing wariness, Chinese responses to perceived intrusions in the South and East China Seas have often been limited - to harassing fishing boats, cutting seismic cables of survey vessels or criticizing exploration rights given to foreign companies. More provocative actions have their precedent, but the growing nationalism, the advantages of exclusive access to an energy source close to home, and the rising price of crude oil, which makes deepwater drilling in the region more profitable – could now render restraint less and less appealing.

Given that 500 million people live within 100 miles of the South China Sea (SCS) coastline alone, a lack of restraint could prove devastatingly destructive. But the good news is that because none of the claimants are likely to exercise hegemony in the region just yet (thanks partly to US leverage), each stands to lose much by trying - and the nervous stand off might persist for a little while longer.

Unfortunately, access to the resources in the South and East China Seas will prove a lot harder until tensions abate. For China - with oil demand expected to account for 34% of what Asia is expected to consume by 2035 - limited access could prove particularly worrying in the long term. 

For the PRC, a lot also rests upon stable maritime highways of commerce, as the country's leaders hope ocean-related industrial economic output will add over 1 trillion USD to the GDP by 2015. Sharing responsibility for securing the sea-lanes could help China realize some of its economic aspirations, but Beijing's reluctance is unsurprising. As I have argued, considering the relative strength of those patrolling the waters - mainly Japan and the United States – sharing responsibility could leave China feeling more vulnerable. The fear is that in times of crisis, the more powerful navies could block access to critical sea lines of communication with greater ease. Or worse, the PRC could find itself forced to compromise on its long-held logic of sovereignty in the South and East China Seas – something which could prove politically damaging for the CCP.

Regardless of the likelihood of such scenarios coming to pass, for now, Beijing seems unlikely to warm to significant levels of co-operation. But instead if it expects burgeoning naval prowess will motivate other claimants to be more accommodating, Beijing could find itself disappointed. The presence of Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles, nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile submarines and an aircraft carrier has not helped forge a favourable environment thus far. It has left many wary, and with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines building better ships and closer ties with each other and with the US, greater assertiveness might not change things to Beijing’s advantage.

Instead, China might find its interests better served by dispelling some of the distrust. Ceasing to advocate resolution of the disputes solely on bi-lateral tracks would be a good start, as such methods are far more likely to compound mistrust, rather than yield lasting solutions.

Also, as Rory Medcalf from the Lowy Institute suggests, setting up communication systems between civilian and auxiliary forces of China and other claimants could help generate familiarity with each other’s modus operandi in the region, making miscalculation much less likely.

China might also consider that radical nationalism – apart from further cementing the CCP’s authority, could easily compel it to take actions it might otherwise deem imprudent. Tempering radical nationalist sentiments would allow more room for manoeuvre and a better chance for resolution. Resolution of course becomes much more likely if other claimants in the South and East China Seas are not encumbered by similar radical nationalist sentiments at home.

Sadly for now, the opening of the Xisha/Paracel Islands to tourists, Japan’s purchase of the Diayou/Senkaku islands and the numerous joint explorations with foreign companies in disputed waters inspires little confidence that the political will for a comprehensive solution exists. Moreover, despite often voicing a desire for a political solution to the maritime disputes, Beijing’s approach under Xi Jinping seems unlikely to change, with China showing few signs of discontinuing its insistence on bilateral talks, and giving observers little reason to believe that the growing pattern of coercion will abate towards those disinclined to pursue the PRC’s preferred mode of dialogue. Unfortunately, until Chinese naval hegemony in East Asia becomes imminent, exclusion and coercion promise Beijing little gain.

But if China considers a more inclusive approach, it could help change the status quo in the resource rich waters. And by way of recompense, China can be sure that a more co-operative environment will allow for access to more of the oil and gas in the region than it can hope to access unilaterally, with less chance of it being isolated. Reason enough for it to try to play nice.

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