Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Maritime Claims and Energy Cooperation in the South China Sea

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Maritime Claims and Energy Cooperation in the South China Sea

Article excerpt

The South China Sea is an area comprising over 200 islands, rocks, and reefs and includes the Paracels and Spratly groups. The unresolved maritime claims of China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines overlap; China and Vietnam have claimed the entire area; and the others have claimed contiguous zones. Uncertainty in relation to sovereign jurisdiction has hindered the exploitation of the hydrocarbon and fishing resources there. Attempts to settle the claims have stumbled over the complexity of the issue and sanguine expectations that reason and the logic of compromise would prevail have proven to be unfounded. One important reason for the as yet unresolved status of the area has been the refusal of the main claimant, China, and also Vietnam, to depart from their formal claim to the entire area. Proposals that have called for multilateral negotiations with the intention of accommodating China have floundered accordingly. If the South China Sea were just an outlying area where the competing claims could be shelved without detriment, it would not merit much attention. The search for new sources of energy reserves however, has added a new urgency to the issue, particularly as China struggles to meet exploding demands for energy. The claimants are now interested in exploiting the energy reserves of their respective claims, the ASEAN states in particular. Can there be security in the South China Sea which would allow the claimants to tap those resources without a resolution of the maritime claims?

The Maritime Claims

The key point about the maritime claims is that their resolution according to the UN Conventional on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would ignore what China regards as its historical rights to the South China Sea, while giving the littoral states control over resources to which the Chinese feel they have a right of access. The issue arose largely because China was prevented by events from realizing its historical claims to the South China Sea, while ASEAN countries took the opportunity to occupy islands there. This division between China's sense of historical rights and actual possession of the South China Sea islands was the outcome of the San Francisco Conference of September 1951 when the allied powers failed to identify who had title to the South China Sea islands when they divested Japan of possession after the Pacific War. Article 2(f) of the San Francisco Treaty simply stated that "Japan renounces all right, title, and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands". The result as Valero noted was a "legal and political vacuum" which allowed the littoral states to raise their respective claims, however justified (Valero 1994). Had China not fallen to the communists the US delegation at the conference may have allowed a non-communist China to assume possession. Chinese claims based on prior discovery carried weight with the allied powers as China had repeatedly affirmed them. The Qing dynasty had lodged a diplomatic protest in 1877 when British vessels reached the Spratlys, a similar protest was made in 1883 when a German vessel surveyed the area. In 1887 China and France, as the colonial power in Indochina, signed a boundary agreement which specified that islands situated east of the designated line belonged to China, leaving the South China Sea islands to China (Choon-ho 1978). Chinese markers were placed on the Paracels in 1907, which were subsequently incorporated into Guangdong province (Valero 1994). France on 26 July 1933 claimed possession of the South China Sea islands and incorporated them into French Indochina. In 1939 Japan occupied some of the main islands in the Spratlys but when France returned after the war the Nationalist government in China continued to contest French possession. In December 1947 the Nationalist government issued a declaration reaffirming that the Paracels and Spratlys were part of Guangdong province. Before the San Francisco Conference Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai on 15 August 1951 again declared Chinese claim to the islands (Valero 1994). …

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