The Spratly Islands Dispute: Why is this important?

October 13, 2011 § 6 Comments

As recently as yesterday, the Spratly Islands disputes were again highlighted in the international media. This time we see India lining up with Vietnam against China to vouch for India’s state-owned ONGC company to begin their “legal” exploration activities in Vietnam’s territorial waters. Just a few months earlier, in May and June of 2011 Chinese ships cut sonar cables attached to PetroVietnam’s boats in the same area.

In the wake of the continuing Spratly Island disputes between China and Vietnam (among others), many still wonder why these small group of islands are so important?

The Spratly Islands dispute can be looked at from a variety of angles. In terms of national security, these islands are important due to their location in the South China Sea, where many merchant ships pass through to deliver  goods, people, and energy products to Asian-Pacific countries. By controlling these islands, the country in question would be able to ensure the safe passage of their goods.

In terms of energy security, the Spratly Islands are considered indispensable to countries in the region due to the potential sources of natural gas and oil found under the islands’ seabed. Whichever country wins the dispute would have the right to explore and develop these resources for their own domestic consumption. This would help in diversifying a country’s energy portfolio while making them less vulnerable to foreign oil and gas markets. At this time, however, the amount of recoverable oil and gas that these islands contain have not been fully proven.

In terms of national pride, these islands are of particular importance to countries currently claiming all or part of the islands (Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei) due to the historical claim these countries have over the territory. These countries have a long sea-faring history, however, it has been tremendously difficult to say which country first inhabited or used these islands.

So, which of these reasons is the real motive for the dispute?

In my opinion, although the potential oil and natural gas that the Spratly Islands offer is compelling, what is more important to these countries is the ability to control of the sea lanes surrounding these island. By controlling the sea lanes in this area, the country in question would be able to increase its national security by rerouting merchant ships, block potential threats, or even divert the delivery of goods to a disputing state. The country in question could also secure itself by building a naval base in this area, potentially protecting itself and its shipments while increasing its own “sea lane security.”

However, what does “sea lane security” actually mean?

Sea lane security, at its present time, is notoriously hard to define due to the legal, geopolitical, and diplomatic connotations of the term. However, I will attempt to synthesize this concept through articles taken from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, all ships are given the right to conduct the innocent passage (unarmed, no unloading of goods or people, etc.) of their ships on all territorial seabeds (Part II, Section 3, Subsection A, Articles 17-19). This means that ships are allowed to get within 12 nautical miles from the coast of a country, as long as they are not a threat to the national security of that country. However, tankers or ships that may carry hazardous material may be directed to use specialized sea lanes to conduct their passage through a country’s territorial waters (Part II, Section 3, Subsection A, Articles 22-23).

The laws regarding the passage through straits, on the other hand, are a bit more complex as they require the determination of whether the straits form an island that are connected to a State’s mainland. If they are not connected, ships have a right of transit passage. However, if the straits are connected to a State then other transit passages will be recommended for the security of the state in question (Part III, Section 2, Articles 38-39). The principles of innocent passage in the previous paragraph also apply to the passage of ships through straits.

Sea lanes, in this instance, are essentially the roads of transportation for ships on seas and oceans. The rules above apply to specific cases in which these roads of transportation might be blocked or redirected according to the what the ships are, what they are transporting, and how the passage of ships affect a state’s national security. As a result, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas offer the nation who owns the islands or territorial seabeds an incredible amount of control, while nations who depend on these sea lanes for the delivery of foreign goods limited influence.

Implications for the Spratly Islands Dispute

For these reasons, the country that ends up claiming territorial ownership over the Spratly Islands also gains control of most of the South China Sea. This is because their territorial seabeds would extend not from their mainland coastline but from the islands’ coastline.

For instance in the map below, China’s claim over the islands would make their sea territory extend all the way south to Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia (Orange line segment), making the “Hypothetical EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) limit from coastal states” part of China’s territorial waters. This would not only make it tremendously hard for Southeast Asians to protest against Chinese naval operations in the future, but would also limit their economic activities (fishing, oil and gas exploration and production, shipping) in the “EEZ.”

How do you solve this?

Thus far, the only approach taken to pacify this conflict has been bilateral agreements. However, this approach breeds distrust as countries immediately place their national sovereignty first by creating overlapping yet contradictory agreements. For example, this can most recently illustrated by the agreement signed by Vietnam and China (October 11, 2011) to hold biannual talks on border disputes and establish an emergency hotline for the South China Sea.  Yet, at the same time, Vietnam aligns itself with India (October 13, 2011) to explore the South China Sea for oil and natural gas.

What is needed for the resolution of this dispute is multilateral talks by all the parties involved in the conflict. This would not only establish a mutual foundation of understanding, but also send a message to the countries involved that there is a willingness to compromise and work together.

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