It may only smell like oil and fish on the South China Sea

When one hears of trouble in the South China Sea, it is almost always to do with resources — oil, gas, rare earth elements. That and fish. Which means that harmony would break out if a fair division of the raw materials and delicacies could be found among the various Asian states, right? According to ...

Ted Aljibe  AFP/Getty Images
Ted Aljibe AFP/Getty Images
Ted Aljibe AFP/Getty Images

When one hears of trouble in the South China Sea, it is almost always to do with resources -- oil, gas, rare earth elements. That and fish. Which means that harmony would break out if a fair division of the raw materials and delicacies could be found among the various Asian states, right? According to experts on the overlapping disputes, the answer may be no.

The U.S. and Philippines are conducting war games in the Filipino section of the South China Sea (pictured above), while the Philippines and China continue a standoff over fishing rights in a place called the Scarborough Shoal. Meanwhile, the Philippines has announced an enlarged estimate of gas reserves in the Reed Bank, a disputed area of the sea near the island of Palawan.

Collectively, this activity raises the temperature among China and its neighbors, not to mention the U.S., as I write at EnergyWire. While relatively little oil or gas has been proven as yet in the South China Sea, Bo Kong, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, says that high oil prices and technological advances raise the chance for strains. "Because of technological breakthroughs, we have a much better idea where the hydrocarbons are," Bo told me. "So I think we will see more activity, and there will be more friction."

When one hears of trouble in the South China Sea, it is almost always to do with resources — oil, gas, rare earth elements. That and fish. Which means that harmony would break out if a fair division of the raw materials and delicacies could be found among the various Asian states, right? According to experts on the overlapping disputes, the answer may be no.

The U.S. and Philippines are conducting war games in the Filipino section of the South China Sea (pictured above), while the Philippines and China continue a standoff over fishing rights in a place called the Scarborough Shoal. Meanwhile, the Philippines has announced an enlarged estimate of gas reserves in the Reed Bank, a disputed area of the sea near the island of Palawan.

Collectively, this activity raises the temperature among China and its neighbors, not to mention the U.S., as I write at EnergyWire. While relatively little oil or gas has been proven as yet in the South China Sea, Bo Kong, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, says that high oil prices and technological advances raise the chance for strains. "Because of technological breakthroughs, we have a much better idea where the hydrocarbons are," Bo told me. "So I think we will see more activity, and there will be more friction."

That may be the case, says Kang Wu, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. After all, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that some 20 billion barrels of oil underlie the South China Sea. Yet Kang also sees hydrocarbons and fish as a "pretext" for discord. The Philippines, Taiwan, China, Vietnam and the others, Kang says, would quarrel regardless of the presence of oil or fish.

It’s all about the age-old issue of territory — no one wants to lose any, and if the ownership of a particular spit of land is ambiguous, all want that too. Kang:

The South China Sea problem is a territorial, national sovereignty and security issue. Even if there is no economic benefit, even if there is no oil or gas, they will still challenge each other. No one is likely to give up their territorial claims.

Chris Johnson, a former CIA analyst on China and now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that Chinese public opinion will not allow for a retreat on land. "You have a rising expectation among a nationalist public that China will defend its sovereignty," Johnson told me.

The territory explanation makes sense, and is not all that surprising. It means that the years of disputes we have witnessed over the Spratley islands, for instance, will not easily be resolved.

This intractability is a double-sided opportunity for the U.S.: It is a wedge — another type of pretext — to enlarge and maintain a naval footprint in the area, if one is seeking a deeper rationale for challenging China. But it is also a thorny opening — tempers flare over territory more than almost any other question, and the U.S. must be cautious how deep it wades in on one side.  

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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