Opinion

Dealing in China’s South Sea


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Depends on who you ask, there are signs that the friction in the oil rich South China Sea may be abating. Tensions seem to be easing in the short term, with nothing resolved to the long-term problem of border demarcation. Two countries in particular have been China's main thorn in their quest to claim the entire sweep of the South China Sea – Vietnam and the Philippines – and in its dealings with both of them, China is rewarding cooperation and punishing dissidence.

Last month, Vietnam ordered Spanish firm Repsol to halt work on its Ca Rong Do (Red Emperor), where commercial drilling was imminent, later asking it to declare ‘force majeure' following pressure from China. It is the second major cancellation in the southern Nam Con Son basin – which skirts China's nine-dashed line – and could cost Repsol and partners some US$200 million in sunk investment. Vietnam has been vocal about pursuing its own energy agenda, but in the end, ended up having to kowtow to China.

The Philippines has also loudly proclaimed sovereignty over its part of the South China Sea, going as far as to bring the case to UNCLOS, which ruled in favour of the Philippines in a 2016 verdict that China refuses to recognise. However, since then, President Duterte has made cordial overtures to joint developments. While both sides have reiterated that joint oil and gas exploration will not affect their legal positions. The Philippines announced last week that cooperation was moving ahead after both countries claimed to recognise and accept each other's ‘firm red lines'. It by no means settles the issue in the long run – indeed, successive governments could reverse the position – but it paves way for resources to be developed like in the Thailand-Malaysia Joint Development Area, legally unsettled but commercially viable. In choosing to engage, China has seemingly rewarded the Philippines with a mutually beneficial arrangement, a stance that it has not taken with the more belligerent Vietnam.

That's not the best outcome, though, as the issue of maritime borders is still unsettled. China has always favoured bilateral talks with each of the claimants to the South China Sea – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei included – a divide and conquer strategy that allows it to throw its weight around. But with the USA absent to exert pressure for encompassing solution, favoured by the Obama administration but ignored by Trump, the countries of the South China Sea rim are sitting ducks against the might of China. Either they capitulate – and are rewarded with some crumbs – like the Philippines; or they defy – and end up capitulating anyway with nothing to show – like Vietnam. The vibe in the South China Sea may be seemingly calmer right now, but there are still dangerous currents beneath the surface.

The Current Weather Forecast: China and the South China Sea Nations

Vietnam – Choppy. China has been pressuring Vietnam to halt fishing and upstream activity.

The Philippines – Calmer. China has agreed to joint development of hydrocarbon resources

Malaysia – Calm. No clashes yet, but Malaysia controls part of the disputed Spratly islands.

Brunei – Calm. No clashes yet, but Brunei claims part of the disputed Spratly islands.

Indonesia – Choppy. No clashes yet, but Indonesia claims the waters around the Natuna islands are its ‘traditional fishing grounds', effectively re-naming it “North Natuna Sea”



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