Stretching from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the southwest to the Strait of Taiwan, the South China Sea long has been considered one of the most important trade routes in the world.
The vast sea is also known to be rich in resources that can help meet the quickly rising energy demands of nearby countries.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, it is estimated that the South China Sea holds about fourteen trillion barrels of natural gas and sixteen to thirty-three billion barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves—most of which are situated along the margins of the South China Sea rather than under the long disputed islets and reefs.
Despite what seems to be high figures, the exploitable oil, in fact, makes up only a tiny percentage of the global supply.
“(It) would account for about one year of China’s daily consumption if it magically dropped into the Chinese market tomorrow,” Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the National Interest.
“The gas is more substantial, but it is only commercially viable if it is piped to the nearest coastlines for use. So, the stuff nearest Vietnam isn’t useful to anyone but Vietnam, and the same for the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.”
Although international disputes regarding the South China Sea often make headlines, Poling added that there likely aren’t any significant global energy-related implications for the United States or other Western nations.
“The energy argument itself has really been a red herring in South China Sea discussions. The real implications for the United States and other nations are that China’s threats to the right of other nations to tap their own energy resources amounts to an unacceptable threat to international maritime law, and there are few American foreign policy interests as abiding as defending freedom of the seas,” he said.
“And if China’s at-sea coercion of U.S. partners and allies, especially the Philippines, challenges U.S. credibility as a regional security provider and therefore ultimately risks undermining American forward presence via its alliance network.”
Still, several of the countries bordering the sea have declared ownership of nearby islands to claim the surrounding sea and its plentiful resources.
China, however, has made dozens of moves to shut down further resource development in energy-hungry Vietnam and other smaller nations, as Beijing aims to force all foreign oil and gas companies out of the South China Sea.
China’s chief goal is undoubtedly to be the only potential joint development partner for rival sea claimants.
For example, China has harassed energy explorers in Malaysian waters and has sunk several Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats in contested sea areas. In 2017, China forced Spain’s Repsol from Vietnam’s Red Emperor project via threats to the communist nation.
The one exception that was allowed is Vietnam’s current drilling projects with Russian oil firms, including Rosneft and Gazprom, with Beijing not wanting to confront Moscow.
There, however, have been instances of countries fighting back. For example, in 2014, when China positioned a massive exploration rig within sight of Vietnam’s coast, violent anti-China protests erupted and forced China to evacuate its citizens. Critics of the Vietnamese government, though, often accuse it of not taking a hardline stance against China regarding sea disputes.
China also has seemingly reached out to some nations, such as the Philippines, for cooperation on oil and gas exploration, though how genuine those advances are remains to be seen.
Just last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted China’s increasing desire to move the focus away from maritime disputes to joint exploration of resources in the sea.
“Both sides believe that the South China Sea issue is only partial to the entirety of Sino-Philippines relations,” Wang said during a press conference.
“We should not let such 1 percent difference derail the 99 percent of our relations.”
For the most part, the United States had stayed out of the regional conflicts but has insisted that freedom of navigation would not be affected by territorial spats over the Spratly and Paracel island chains, which have been contested by an array of countries like China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
“Any (Chinese) action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters, or to carry out such activities unilaterally, is unlawful,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last year.
He added that Washington stood “with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.”
According to the U.S. State Department, it has been estimated that China is effectively blocking the development of $2.5 trillion worth of oil and gas resources in the South China Sea. Other notable analysts have put that hefty figure even higher.
The statement from State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus reads in part: “China’s actions undermine regional peace and security (and) impose economic costs on Southeast Asian states by blocking their access to an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources.”
It continued: “U.S. companies are world leaders in the exploration and extraction of hydrocarbon resources, including offshore and in the South China Sea. The United States therefore strongly opposes any efforts by China to threaten or coerce partner countries into withholding cooperation with non-Chinese firms, or otherwise harassing their cooperative activities.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.