This paper will seek to briefly summarize the basic issues behind the dispute over the South China Sea (SCS) both in itself and in reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The immense economic importance of the SCS cannot be overstated. Many, such as Hyer (1995) have referred to this as Japan’s “umbilical cord. ” It is a central shipping area connecting The Pacific and Indian Oceans. Recent Chinese colonization of the islands in the SCS has intensified the disputes, disputes involving China, Japan, Russia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and the US.
In the 1970s, the basic balance of power in the region was shared by the USSR, operating with Vietnam, the US, operating with the Philippines, and the Chinese, in their drive south and east. Both the USSR and the US have largely withdrawn, creating a new dispute where China seems to be taking on the rest of the Asian world for control over this region (Hyer, 1995). Several issues have been driving the Chinese desire to colonize the area. First, as Garver (1992) has made clear, the creating of living space for China’s excess population has been an important area.
Second, during the Cold War, China used this region as a means of avoiding the Soviet encirclement of China that began with the Soviet sponsorship of Vietnam and the fall of Cambodia to the latter (Garver, 1992). China adopted, in the 1970s and early 1980s, an aggressive approach to colonizing the area, creating an entire China-based infrastructure (both civilian and military) and stationed part of its southern command air force and navy in the area.
At the same time, China engaged in substantial scientific surveying of the region in terms of natural resources and rational exploitation, and hence, the discovery of the real strategic content of the region: 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas, 370,000 tons of phosphorous, and, most importantly, a minimum of 205 billion barrels of oil (Garver, 1992). Hence, once China made this announcement, the dispute intensified.
The region was not just a shipping area or the arena for China’s liberation from Soviet encirclement, but indeed, possibly central to the future economy of the region. China is dependent on Russian and Central Asian oil, the discovery of a Chinese oil field could not be more important to Chinese interests. Japan regularly protests the Chinese moves in the region, that, truth be told, have grown softer over the lat 15 years. China now seeks to exploit the region with a cooperative, rather than confrontational, approach (Garver, 1992; Hyer, 1995).
But this is the approach taken by the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982): the Convention, the culmination of disparate efforts from 1952 onward, holds that conflicts should be resolved peacefully, that the regions involved be developed rationally and with an eye to environmental protection, that the stats surrounding the sea in question maintain sovereignty and that this sovereignty is used to assist in the creation of a just and equitable economic order relative to the resources of the sea in question (UN, 1982).
At the same time, specifically in dealing with the question of a “semi-enclosed sea” such as the SCS, three areas of interest are explained: cooperation of the state that form the littoral, the coordination of the same states in the development of the resources, and lastly, the invitation of other interested parties to engage both in scientific exploration and the exploitation of the region (UN, 1982, art. 123). This has been the approach of both Taiwan and China proper.
According to Cheng (1997) the government of Taiwan (ROC) has sent troops to the Spratley Islands (the chain where the oil has been found), but has also made the point, like their rivals to the west, that cooperation in the development of the gas and oil potential of the region should e paramount. Cheng holds that this is because of the ROC’s comparative weakness relative to their rivals in Peking. It remains ROC policy, though, that both the Spratley and Woody chains belong to Taiwan. But it is also the ROC’s interest that the US get involved on the ROCs side.
At the same time, China has rushed to fill the power vacuum left by the fall of the USSR and the departure of the substantial role of the Russian navy in the area. In fact, the build up of the USSR’s fleet in the area, in cooperation with Hanoi, is really the very first contemporary reason why the Chinese sought to move into the region with such aggressiveness in the early 1970s. But since China’s control has been matter of fact since that time, the UN Convention also says (cf. 47. 6) that the power who “traditionally” controls the region has the upper hand in negotiation.
The question is whether or not this is China or Vietnam. It seems that the ROC’s position is really a piggy-back on the Chinese position, since, of course, the ROC holds that it is China, and hence, has all the rights and privileges of their larger neighbor. Nevertheless, Cheng summarizes the consistent approach of the ROC to the question of the SCS, and these are: first, that the SCS is part of the ROC, but, second, that the ROC is quite willing to operate in joint arrangements with anyone else who can develop this area. Third, that the development of this area is part of the integral interest of the Chinese.
Fourth, that all conflicts should be resolved peacefully, which is significant since the SCS is now similar to the Korean DMZ in terms of its militarization. Lastly, the ROC holds that the environment should be a central concern or anyone who seeks to exploit this region. It seems that the balance of power as of 2009 looks like this: first, relations between China and Vietnam have gotten much better since the fall of the USSR. In fact, Chinese investment in Vietnam is substantial. At the same time, relations between Japan and China have remained frigid, and Japan has a similar dispute with Russia over the equally oil rich Kurile Islands.
Both China and Japan are dependent on imports of oil for their large economies, so these disputes have a centrally strategic economic origin: the integrity of their economies depend on regular supplies of fuel. Having their own supplies under their direct control could not but be a huge boon to their development. The US does not have a policy over the area, since relations with China and Taiwan are good, as with Japan. Taiwan cannot count on complete US support, and, of all the belligerents, the ROC has been the most cooperative, realizing their comparative weakness relative to Japan and China. Cheng, 1997).
It is almost superfluous to describe the strategic importance of this area, not to mention the potential for serious military conflict, especially given the regional fear over the fait accompli of Chinese control. Japan is understandably nervous for several reasons: first, she is dependent upon this sea for her western trade, and secondly, for her to lose disputes to China dn Russia over major oil deposits could demote japan to a dependent and second rate economic power over the long term, not to mention the face-loss the Japanese would suffer.
It is not inconceivable for the Japanese to see that re-arming is the only means to challenge Chinese dominance over the region. It is also not inconceivable to see Japan financing a Vietnam and the ROC that will cooperate with it in Challenging China’s dominance over the region. At the moment, however, both China and their ROC rivals have taken a softer, more conciliatory approach. More than anything else, the future of the balance of Asian power is at stake. Whoever wins will become the unchallenged regional hegemon and a global power of the first rank.