Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters


The South China Sea’s hydrocarbon resources are hotly contested though its reserves are unproven. While their potential economic benefit may be considerable, their foremost significance is political, as their division has implications for sovereignty and fundamental law of the sea principles. Exploration frictions have deepened geopolitical fault lines. Competition once framed by verbal warnings and diplomatic pressure today frequently takes the form of physical confrontation. A key factor is China’s growing capability and accompanying desire to expand its own exploration while preventing other claimants’ activity. In parallel, Beijing has advocated setting aside disputes and developing resources jointly, but as collaboration remains elusive, analysts in China have called for unilateral measures to pressure uncooperative parties. Better would be greater efforts to create mechanisms for preventing competition from becoming conflict, while seeking better understanding of motivations needed for eventual cooperation.