South China Sea

The South China Sea is in the news again, and the question remains: who owns it?

China claims the whole region. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan all disagree.

China claims pretty well all of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Phillipines, and Malaysia have quite different views.

At stake are the rights to the resources – mostly oil and gas, since the fisheries have been so extensively overexploited, and pollution levels are so high. A huge amount of marine traffic passes through the Sea, raising global interest.

China claims ownership of both the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, lying in the middle of the Sea. No one is particularly interested in living on these islands – they are small and low, mostly rocks and islets. But whoever owns them can claim substantial parts of the South China Sea.

China has put some of its military into garrisons on the Paracels, and is promoting the islands for tourism. It will probably win the ownership game there, despite Vietnam’s protests.

Chinese soldiers training on the Paracel Islands (

Both China and Vietnam claim that their explorers first found the Spratlys a millennium or two ago. But the islands lie just a few km from the Philippine province of Palawan, and the Philippines have administered the islands since WW2. They have have a far stronger claim.

Most disputes concerning the EEZ boundaries of adjacent nations have been worked out by the nations themselves, or by arbitration by the International Court in The Hague, or are under preparation for such arbitration, according to UN Law of the Sea.

But not the South China Sea – probably because China, who claims all of it, including much of the 200 mile EEZ territory of the other coastal countries, won’t get all of it if it goes to UN arbitration.

China would seem to have the advantage, for its sheer size and power would let it enforce its views. But China also needs good relations with its neighbors, and still prefers to work this out through negotiations.

As always China prefers to have bilateral discussions rather than multilateral ones. It also takes a long view, assuming its wishes will prevail eventually. Remember it was early to ratify the UN Law of the Sea, with the intent to work within the law, and over time change the law where it needs changing. The US still hasn’t ratified it.

Air strip in the enticing Spratly Islands

Now all this is back in the news, however briefly, because of last week’s East Asia Summit meetings in Bali. Most of the 18 nations represented spoke up in favor of multinational discussions to resolve the ownership question. Obama, the first US president to attend the meetings, intent on increasing US presence and influence in the region, has encouraging China to listen to others and to negotiate.

The big accomplishment of the meetings is that China didn’t reject the idea. I guess that is progress.

Meanwhile, Vietnam calls the sea the Eastern Sea, while the Philippines calls it the West Philippine Sea. The US is establishing a military base on the north coast of Australia, and China is carrying out navy maneuvers in the region. India wants to begin oil exploration in the Sea.

Secretary of State Clinton at the East Asia summit in Bali. She said that the disputes should be resolved according to the UN Law of the Sea (telegraphjournal,

The temperature is clearly rising. So let’s hear it for multinational negotiations, for invoking the UN Law of the Sea through arbitration at The Hague, and for sharing access to the resources in some reasonable fashion.

Yet the end result will be much the same – the seabed will be exploited, China will own or buy most of the resources, and the sea lanes will somehow remain free and open.

Sounds a lot like the situation in the Arctic, where Canada, playing the role of Vietnam or the Philippines, still thinks it is a strong player.

A little real life remains in the Spratlys: a white-tailed tropic bird (

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