Why a South China Sea Website?

An introductory essay by David Rosenberg, Editor

Bordered by some of the world’s most rapidly industrializing countries and traversed by some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the South China Sea is also a unique ecosystem and a repository for valuable natural resources. Countries around the South China Sea, however, have usually been more concerned with maximizing national economic growth and ensuring adequate energy supplies than in preserving their common maritime environment. Consequently, this oceanic hub of the industrial revolution of Asia is becoming a sink for regional environmental pollution and an area of conflicting territorial claims. 

What are the countries around the South China Sea doing about their growing problems of regional environmental pollution and conflicting resource and territorial claims? How will the expanding and urbanizing coastal population achieve sustainable development? Based on the premise that regional problems require regional solutions, this website aims to provide scholars and policy-makers with an online guide to information and reference resources about common regional development, environment, and security issues around the South China Sea. 

Unifying factors

Three major factors necessitate a comprehensive view of the South China Sea as an integral unit of analysis. It is a distinctive ecosystem, a repository of vital natural resources, and a maritime superhighway in the world economy.

Distinctive ecosystem
The South China Sea is defined by the International Hydrographic Bureau as the semi-enclosed body of water stretching in a Southwest to Northeast direction, whose southern border is 3 degrees South latitude between South Sumatra and Kalimantan (Karimata Straits), and whose northern border is the Strait of Taiwan from the northern tip of Taiwan to the Fukien coast of China

The South China Sea can be viewed as a distinctive ecosystem due to its boundaries of archipelagoes and peninsulas, dotted by small islands and coral reefs; the striking variation in its sea floor characteristics, averaging 100 meters deep on the continental Sunda shelf and over 5,000 meters in the Philippine basin; and its unusual monsoon weather patterns of reversing summer and winter rains and winds. The northeast monsoon between December and February and the southwest monsoon between June and August change the surface water circulation pattern with predictable regularity. At the eastern edge of the Sunda continental shelf, the Wallace Line marks one of the sharpest zoogeographical frontiers in the world. 

Geology and climate combine to produce a remarkable amount of biological diversity and immense genetic resources in the South China Sea. Extensive coral reefs support several thousand different species of organisms and play an important part in buffering wave impact on beaches, thus reducing erosion.

Repository for vital natural resources.
The littoral countries of the South China Sea have similar coastal ecosystems and access to common deep sea resources; for example, coastal cultivation of oysters and shrimp, and deep sea fishing for tuna and other migratory species in the South China Sea. About half of the coastal population’s protein intake comes from the sea.

The sea plays an important role in the economies of the littoral nations, by providing food and employment for the increasing coastal population. A large portion of the workforce is dependent on the marine environment. This includes employment in fishing, marine transportation, offshore exploration and mining of mineral and non-mineral resources, and recreation and tourism.

The South China Sea may be an important source of oil and natural gas. According to a 1995 study by Russia’s Research Institute of Geology of Foreign Countries, the equivalent of 6 billion barrels of oil might be located in the Spratly Islands area, of which 70 percent would be natural gas. On the other hand, Chinese media outlets have referred to the South China Sea as ‘the second Persian Gulf,’ and some Chinese specialists have asserted that the South China Sea could contain as much as 150 billion barrels of oil and natural gas (USIP, 1995). (See Table 1. Oil and Gas in the South China Sea Region, and Table 2. Oil and Gas in the South China Sea – Comparison with Other Regions)

Despite these optimistic assessments, the cost of drilling in deep-water areas of the South China Sea and assessments of the geochemistry of the Spratly Islands area suggest that, for the time being, the costs of exploration and low likelihood of substantial and easily exploitable yields will remain limiting factors. Due to numerous territorial disputes, few oil companies are likely to risk the cost of exploration to determine whether the potential yields in the area are commercially viable. Even in the undisputed coastal areas, it might take many years to exploit reserves, given the low oil prices and economic slowdown of the late 1990’s.

Maritime superhighway in the world economy
The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest international sea lanes. More than half of the world’s supertanker traffic passes through the region’s waters. Over half of the world’s merchant fleet (by tonnage) sails through the South China Sea every year. Tanker traffic through the Strait of Malacca at the southwestern end of the South China Sea is more than three times greater than Suez Canal traffic, and well over five times more than the Panama Canal (USEIA, 1998). 

Over the next 20 years, oil consumption among developing Asian countries is expected to rise by 4% annually on average, with about half of this increase coming from China. If this growth rate is maintained, oil demand for these nations will reach 25 million barrels per day – more than double current consumption levels — by 2020 (Noer, 1996). Almost all of this additional Asian oil demand, as well as Japan’s oil needs, will need to be imported from the Middle East and Africa. Most all of it will pass through the strategic Strait of Malacca into the South China Sea. Supertankers going to Japan will pass through the wider Lombok Straight east of Bali. This adds to the importance of the South China Sea region which contains oil and gas resources strategically located near large energy-consuming countries.

The large volume of shipping in the South China Sea/Strait of Malacca area has also created opportunities for attacks on merchant shipping. About half of the world’s reported cases of piracy have occurred in this area (MARAD, 1996). 

Regional priorities

Maximizing national economic growth
Over most of the past two decades, industrial output and energy consumption has grown faster in the countries around the South China Sea than anywhere else in the world, driven by the region’s rapid economic growth and increasing population. Average annual growth in real GDP in ASEAN countries over the past two decades averaged between 5% and 10%, substantially higher than in major industrial nations (see Table 3. Growth in Real Gross Domestic Product in Selected Countries). Energy consumption in most Southeast Asian nations increased even faster (See Table 4. Energy Production and Use in Selected Countries). The industrial revolution now underway is based on deeply-rooted, long-term trends, and will be only temporarily interrupted by the current Asian economic crisis. While many countries around the South China Sea suffered economic declines in 1998, all are widely forecasted to resume economic growth by 2000. Perhaps the most important national agenda priority in countries around the South China Sea is to resume the rapid economic growth that produced two decades of rising incomes and increased consumption for an expanding middle class. 

Ensuring adequate energy supplies
Despite the economic slowdown in several countries in the region, population growth and urbanization continue to expand coastal cities. As a result, energy production remains a high priority throughout the region. Given the long-term trends in population, economic growth and energy use, there is growing concern in these countries for ensuring adequate energy supplies for rapid industrialization. Despite the recent economic downturn, there have been steady shipments of oil imports from the Middle East across the South China Sea. And despite the current low energy prices, there has been increased attention to oil exploration and development in the South China Sea. 

Will there be an energy shortage when rapid economic growth resumes in Asia? Kent Calder (1996) asserts that petroleum, coal, and natural gas continue to be in insufficient supply in Asia, which provides only 11 percent of global oil production and 4.5 percent of reserves (Fesharaki et al, 1995). Japan, with half the region’s economic output, remains 95 percent dependent on oil imports. The growing Chinese economy’s hunger for energy has made that country a net oil importer since 1993 despite its status as the top supplier of energy in Asia (with Indonesia). An East-West Center study estimates that Asia’s share of oil imports from the Middle East will rise from 70 percent in 1993 to 95 percent in 2010 (Feshi, 1995). Many countries have staked territorial claims in disputed areas of the South China Sea because it is thought to be rich in oil and natural gas. 

Resolving conflicting territorial claims
Who owns the South China Sea? Who can claim its resources? Who has rights of navigation through its waters? Who is responsible for its environment? International law is ambiguous on these questions. To the north, the Pratas Island and the submerged Macclesfield Bank are claimed by Taiwan and China. China and Taiwan have tacitly tolerated each other’s identical claim to practically the entire South China Sea because both base their claim on the same historic grounds. All the Paracel Islands are claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan and China, on historic grounds, although these have been occupied exclusively by China since 1974. China and Vietnam disagree over their maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin. 

Further south, the Spratly Islands are spread astride strategic sea lanes and are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Of the six, all but Brunei have sought to strengthen their claims by establishing a military presence on at least one of the Spratlys. Although their claims to exclusive economic zones overlap, all six allege that their claims are fully supported under international law and under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which entered into force in 1994. Finally, the claims of China, Taiwan and Vietnam, overlap portions of Indonesia’s claim in the Natuna area (Hull, 1996). These claims are summarized in Table 5. Territorial Claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. 

The Law of the Sea
Ironically, the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention – which intended to resolve maritime disputes – may have exacerbated them, at least in the short-term. The 1982 convention created a number of guidelines concerning the status of islands, the continental shelf, enclosed seas, and territorial limits. Three of the most relevant to the South China Sea are:

Article 3, which establishes that “every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles”;

Articles 55 – 75, which define the concept of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area up to 200 nautical miles beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea. The EEZ gives coastal states “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to” (above) “the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil…” 

Article 121, which states that rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. 

The establishment of the EEZ created the potential for overlapping claims in semi-enclosed seas such as the South China Sea. These claims could potentially be extended by any nation which could build a settlement on the islands in the region and attempt to establish a clear title. South China Sea claimants have clashed as they tried to establish outposts on the islands (mostly military) in order to be in conformity with Article 121 in pressing their claims.

Military conflicts in the South China Sea
There have been several cases of military intimidation in recent years, in addition to China’s use of military force against Vietnamese troops to enforce its claim to the Paracels in 1974. One confrontation occurred between the Chinese and Vietnamese over the occupation of Fiery Cross Reef (Yung Shu Jiao) in 1988, at which time the PRC sank three Vietnamese vessels, killing seventy-two people.

Another incident began with the discovery that the Chinese had occupied Mischief Reef, a circular reef within 200 miles of the Philippine island of Palawan, and within the area claimed by the Philippine government as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This involved encounters between military vessels from the Philippines and the PRC in March and April 1995. It was the aptly named Mischief Reef confrontation that has catalyzed the most recent wave of interest and concern over the Spratly Islands issue (Sherry, 1998). These and other recent conflicts are summarized in Table 6. Disputes over Drilling and Exploration in the South China Sea, and Table 7. Recent Military Clashes in the South China Sea.

The belief that the South China Sea contains large deposits of resources has exacerbated the problem of territorial disputes (Snyder, 1997). While the claimants have agreed, in principle, to renounce the use of force to resolve the dispute, there is almost no agreement as to how a resolution should be developed. One common suggestion to prevent conflict is the creation of a Joint Development Agreement (JDA). This would involve the claimants agreeing to put aside questions of sovereignty and cooperate in joint resource development in the disputed area. The problem with this approach, however, is there is still little agreement among the claimants as to how this cooperation would work. Given the ambiguous, incomplete, and often contradictory claims to the islands of the South China Sea, a political settlement – not a legal solution – may be the only realistic means of resolving these complex issues.

Inasmuch as a territorial settlement is unlikely in the short term, other avenues of regional cooperation have emerged. Since 1990 a series of workshops on “Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea” have been held under the auspices of the Indonesian government’s Research and Development Agency within the Department of Foreign Affairs (UBC, 1998). These non-governmental gatherings, attended by government and military officials in their private capacities as well as by academics from ASEAN countries as well as China, Taiwan, and Canada, have been convened to explore ways to promote cooperation among the nations bordering on the South China Sea. The group has been helpful in coordinating scientific marine research and environmental protection. This, in turn, has provided an authoritative basis for intergovernmental policy within ASEAN. 

Regional environmental and resource management problems

The problems of environmental pollution around the South China Sea are generally due to population growth and urbanization in coastal cities, economic growth and increased material consumption, and highly polluting technologies for energy production and primary resource extraction. In addition, there has been an increase in oil spills and waste dumpings by transit vessels as a result of increasing trade and transport of raw materials, fossil fuels, and commodities across the region’s shipping lanes. Notable recent examples of regional environmental and resource management problems include overfishing and smoke haze.

The resources of the South China Sea, living and non-living, are rapidly being exploited by the people of the region, who are heavily concentrated along the coastline. Overfishing or a declining average annual fish catch now threatens the extensive fishing industry. Many fishermen are forced to resort to more efficient and aggressive techniques, and to venture further out to new fishing grounds. Some desperate ones use illegal methods such as blast fishing and cyanide poisoning. Fish and coral habitats are also degraded by increased sedimentation, especially from land development. Coral reefs have been ravaged to provide building materials and plundered for ornamental commodities.

Air pollution
Transboundary air pollution in the form of smoke haze from forest fires and acid rain from industrial smokestacks spreads widely across the region, severely affecting human health and economic activity. Air pollution primarily consists of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, other greenhouse gas emissions, and combustion particulates from proliferating smokestacks, forest fires, and motor vehicles around the South China Sea.

Dense clouds of smoke haze were widely evident in satellite photo-images of the South China Sea during the last half of 1997. Most of this air pollution came from forest fires in Sumatra, Kalimantan and East Malaysia. Additional large quantities of carbon and sulphur emissions came from smokestacks of coal-fired power stations, aluminum smelters, and cement and steel factories in southern China. Motor vehicles also generate additional particulate and aerosol pollution, especially in highly urbanized areas along the coastline of the South China Sea.

Linkages: development and environment
As the countries around the South China Sea expand their economies and consume more fossil fuel resources, they also produce more pollution. Many of these countries are now making important decisions about technology and infrastructure with critical implications for long-term environmental change. Many of them face competitive market pressures to produce at the lowest, short-term cost possible. In asmuch as governments compete with each other for investment in an increasingly integrated world economy, they are reluctant to impose costly regulations to maintain environmental standards which might discourage investment and output. From the individual national, short-term view, pollution control programs may hinder economic performance and increase consumer prices. Nations that do impose charges on polluters are thought to give business enterprises an incentive to relocate in countries with more lenient standards. As a result, many environmental pollution problems are often overshadowed by concerns over economic growth.

Linkages: environment and security
What are the links between environmental issues and security issues? In a recent Adelphi Paper, Alan Dupont (1998) makes a persuasive argument that environmental problems are unlikely to be the primary cause of a major conflict between states in the Pacific Asia region. However, they may prolong or complicate existing disputes.

The links between energy demand, environmental pollution, and regional security were suggested in a statement by Chinese Energy Minister and former National People’s Congress Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee Vice Chairman Yang Jike, who wrote in his introduction to the 1997 edition of the China Energy Development Report [Zhongguo Nengyuyan Fazhan Baogao] that China should concentrate on the development of its coal resources. Although this would increase particulate pollution in the PRC and Northeast Asia and would also increase greenhouse gas emissions, the PRC would not have to increase its Middle East oil imports (which might get the PRC embroiled in the Middle East like the United States). Concentrating on energy from coal, Yang writes, would enable China to forego oil drilling in the South China Sea and in Xinjiang so as to avoid offending China’s Southeast Asian neighbors and its Uighur minority in Xinjiang (ES Embassy-Beijing, 1997). Recently, however, Chinese leaders have decided to import much more oil from the Middle East, and have planned to invest considerable sums to facilitate this trade (Thomas, 1998).

Not only does regional economic growth create greater dependence upon Middle East oil-producing nations, but, most importantly, it raises the issue of reliability of access to shipping lanes from the Middle East to Asia. The approaches to the Strait of Malacca (for smaller tankers) and to the Lombok and Makassar Straits in Indonesia (for larger tankers) are surrounded by Southeast Asian nations (Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore) which control those straits and surrounding waters with increasing naval capability. And China’s strengthening naval presence and territorial claims to waters of the South China Seas, may reflect its own desire to secure shipping lanes for its energy supply and trading routes. This may heighten tension in the waters of Southeast Asia (May et al, 1996). 

Regional policy responsesNational sovereignty and non-interference
ASEAN serves as a useful forum for promoting economic growth, political stability, and social and cultural exchange in the region; however, it is sometimes subject to a “lowest-common-denominator” syndrome, whereby policies are watered down to satisfy the wishes of members with conflicting interests. “ASEAN operates by consensus. Known as ‘the ASEAN Way,’ this practice places a priority on consultation and dialogue and the avoidance of public confrontation,” observes Kevin Quigley (1997). “All ASEAN policies must be agreed to unanimously by its members…. Important differences are often papered over or postponed. For example, it took nearly 25 years to reach an agreement on intentions for a free trade arrangement.”

In the international area, ASEAN countries have frequently defended their right to use their natural resources to further economic development, as did the industrialized countries before them (Montes, 1997). In 1989 ASEAN acted as a group to overturn proposals to sharply reduce the export of tropical wood to Europe, even as the Philippines and Thailand had already slipped from being exporters to net importers of wood. The implicit position of the resource-endowed countries in the region has been to accept the trade-off between natural resource preservation and economic development. Most Southeast Asian economies have tended to take a “frontier” view of their natural resources. In recent years, however, many countries in the region have been under increasing pressure from international agencies, the scientific community, and popular environmental movements at home and abroad to pursue sustainable development policies.

In the past, ASEAN has usually promoted regional cooperation through bilateral relations, which over time have developed into an overlapping and interlocking network. All of the ASEAN countries, Acharya observes (1992), share the problem of limited resources and capabilities. “As a result several ASEAN states continue to seek separate bilateral arrangements with great powers rather than look to regional cooperation as a means of providing for their security.” 

Case Study: The ASEAN Regional Haze Action Plan
One instructive example of regional policy-making can be seen in the efforts of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to deal with a major cause of transboundary air pollution, smoke haze from Indonesian forest fires (Rosenberg, 1999). The relatively sudden, unexpected, and costly smoke pollution of 1997 precipitated a response from ASEAN which may set a precedent for dealing with other regional resource management issues.

ASEAN member states have been increasingly aware that industrial pollution threatened the resource base of progress and posed a physical danger to those exposed to pollution. ASEAN Ministers met and passed several resolutions on the subject: the 1990 Kuala Lumpur Accord on Environment and Development; the 1992 Singapore Resolution on Environment; the 1994 Bandar Seri Begawan Resolution on Environment and Development, and the 1995 ASEAN Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution. 

The 1995 ASEAN agreement created the Haze Technical Task Force, a landmark plan to combat air and marine pollution and control hazardous wastes specifically related to the South China Sea. Malaysia began the drive for the plan after 1994’s forest fires in Indonesia, which blanketed much of the region in heavy smog for weeks. Malaysia also proposed extending the agreement to ocean pollution and hazardous wastes after a substantial increase in ships dumping sludge and other materials into the Straits of Malacca. The 1995 accords recognized the specific problems of environmental pollution around the South China Sea, but provided no clear mechanisms for dealing with the problem. 

It took a sudden and drastic environmental crisis – the 1997 forest fires of Indonesia – to begin ASEAN movement toward a “framework convention” on regional air pollution. ASEAN environment ministers met in December 1997 to devise a Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP) with three priority objectives: prevention of forest fires through better management policies and enforcement; establishing operational mechanisms for monitoring; and strengthening regional land and forest fire-fighting capability, as well as other mitigation measures, including a regional review of land-use policies and legislation.

They met again in early 1998 to operationalize the Action Plan by coordinating fire-fighting efforts, agreeing that Malaysia would concentrate on fire prevention, Singapore on satellite monitoring, and Indonesia on fire-fighting. Data from the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) in Singapore is now accessible to all ASEAN countries. The link strengthens the region’s early-warning system for land and forest fires. Information available includes satellite imagery, wind charts, visibility and air quality information and other meteorological and environmental information for haze monitoring. To improve the region’s fire-fighting capacity, an ASEAN Research and Training Centre for Land and Forest Fire Management will be established at the University of Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan. The Centre will fill the gap which currently exists for fire-fighters armed with the necessary knowledge and skills to snuff out forest, brush and land fires.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is supporting the plan with a one million dollar grant to Indonesia for an advisory technical assistance program (ADTA) and another one million dollar grant to ASEAN for a regional technical assistance program (RETA) for strengthening ASEAN’s capacity in preventing and mitigating transboundary atmospheric pollution resulting from the forest fires. ASEAN ministers and senior officials charged with tackling the haze problem have met every month or so since November 1997 to make decisions and to review the impact of actions to combat the forest fires and to prevent their spread in the region.

The process of regime formation
Each nation around the South China Sea may find it in its short-term interest to exploit natural resources and provide adequate energy supplies. However, the combined effect of the pursuit of national self-interest and the lack of any constraints on access may lead to overexploitation of a common resource and environmental degradation. This is especially relevant to smoke haze which travels easily across borders. This makes it difficult for any national government to control all the pollution in its jurisdiction, even if it were so inclined. National political leaders had to enter the regional or international arena to find remedies for environmental problems that could not be met within the political framework of the nation-state.

It appears that a genuine regional effort may be emerging to deal with a problem that transcends national boundaries. The challenge of tackling and controlling forest fires and the resulting haze is no longer an individual undertaking of the affected countries, but a coordinated and concerted response by the ASEAN member countries. On this issue, there is an evolving regional response with many of the key ingredients of a framework convention for an international environmental regime (Porter & Brown, 1996), including:

1. a forum to raises issues, define the problem, and set criteria and standards for a solution,
2. a way to formulate prevention and remedial policies,
3. a mechanism to set targets and timetables for implementing solutions, and
4. an ability to ensure compliance by annual reviews and financial incentives. 

The Regional Haze Action Plan is not yet a fully-institutionalized, legally-enforcible treaty; however, it is a major step in that direction. In the wake of the Asian currency crises and political instability in several Southeast Asian countries, it is not clear whether this initiative will continue to receive strong leadership. If it does, then this experience – formulating a collective response to a regional environmental problem – could become an important precedent. It has become considerably easier for parties inside and outside ASEAN to raise common environmental and resource-use problems. 

References: see Rosenberg, David, “Environmental Pollution around the South China Sea: Developing a Regional Response to a Regional Problem,” Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Working Paper No. 20,  Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University,  1999.


Table 1. 
Oil and Gas in the South China Sea Region
Table 2. 

Oil and Gas in the South China Sea – Comparison with Other Regions
Table 3. 

Growth in Real Gross Domestic Product in Selected Countries
Table 4. 

Energy Production and Use in Selected Countries
Table 5. 

Territorial Claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands
Table 6.

Disputes over Drilling and Exploration in the South China Sea
Table 7. 

Recent Military Clashes in the South China Sea