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Geographical Significance and Natural Reserves in the South China Sea

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Nabil Akram

South China Sea has vital significance in the region as well as indo-pacific geopolitics. South China Sea is one of the world largest and semi enclosed sea. It stretches around 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles) (Jennings, 2017). The average depth of sea is 4,000 feet with its continental shelf. This is a warm sea with high salt content. It is full of living and non-living resources with one of world busiest trade route, linking Pacific Ocean to India Ocean (Kaplan, 2016).  South China Sea is widened from Singapore Strait to Taiwan Strait with a group of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippine, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) (Perkins, 2013).  The SCS is the combinations of the thousands of the islands, reef, islets, corals, shoals and atolls spread 900 km from east to west and 1800 km from north to south and covering geo-political and geo-strategic interests of the region (Nair, 2012). There are many rivers which fall in SCS, those are, Mekong River (It flows from China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand), Pahang River (West Malaysia), Kiulong River (Myanmar), Pasig River (Philippine), Rajang River (Malaysia), Min River (China), Red River (China and Vietnam), Pearl River (China and Vietnam) etc. (Mustajib, 2016). All the four disputed islands (the Paracel Island, the Spratly Island, the Macclesfield bank and the Pratas islands) are the part of this sea. China has sovereignty claims over all these described archipelagos (Storey & Cheng Yi, 2016).

The Spratly archipelago is the biggest group of islands in this sea and the most controversial among all the claimants. It consist of islands, reef, banks and shoals with area about 409,000 sq. km. It is located between Vietnam and Philippines near Malaysia (Pletcher, 2016). The Spratly archipelago is known in Chinese as Nansha islands, Truong Sa islands in Vietnam and Kalaya’an archipelago in Philippine. This place is full of sea birds, fish and turtles (Muir, 2012). These archipelagoes are 560 miles wide from east to west and 500 miles from north to south. These islands consist of 14 sandy islands, 21 shoals, 113 reefs and 6 bank and 113 submerged banks. According to a western researcher Spratly Islands enclosed 170 features and only 36 islands of tiny quantity are above sea level (Keyuan, 2011).

Paracel Island is important group of the islands because of its important geo-strategic location and natural resources. It is disputed between China and Vietnam. China got possession of these archipelagoes in 1974 during a conflict with South Vietnam (Ngo, 2017). Paracel Island stretch 122,648,000 square nautical miles and second largest group after Spratly Island. These archipelagoes situated in South China Sea with 165 km away from south and eastward of Chinese Hainan island and 185 east side of Vietnamese coasts (Bouchat, 2014). Paracel Island consist of 30 islands, islet and reef stretch 16,000 square kilo meters (Nguyen, 2012).

Pratas islands (Dongsha Quandao) consist in one island and two banks. These are North Vereker and South Vereker Bank and Dongsha. Only Dongsha above from sea level and North and South Vereker are entirely submerged. This archipelago is situated south east of the Hong Kong. These are under the sovereignty of the Taiwan and China has claim over it (Guo, 2007, p. 99).

The Macclesfield bank is disputed between China and Philippine. It consist of 25 reefs and considered as the biggest atoll in the world and the Scarborough Shoal is located in the west of Philippines and disputed between China and Philippine. Both archipelagoes are now under the control of China (Lee B. , 2014).

Wu Shicun (2013) describes the importance of the SCS in his book “Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development on the South China Sea: A Chinese Perspective” with the reference of France navigation officer. He writes that the Vice Chairman of the France Navigation Committee described the importance of the Spratly and the Paracel Island in 1930s in these words that it is impossible to ignore importance of both islands and the occupation of both islands by powerful foreign country would cause a great threat to the security of the Indo-China during war. These words show the importance of the SCS and its important geostrategic position. Due to this importance, the US and China are involved in getting strong position in the SCS region. It is reality that if any country gets control over SCS, it can control the whole East Asia region as a regional hegemon. This is the reason that this area got attention of regional stack holders as well as world super power, the US. According to the president of the China’s National Institute for South China Sea studies Wu Shicun, there are four major stack holders who were involved in this dispute, these are China, Vietnam, Philippines and the US. The importance of this sea can be described in two ways. First as full of natural resources, second, economic activities and passage of trade, third, it’s geo-strategic position.

South China Sea is full of natural resources like Gas, Oil, Coral Lime, high Silicate, Sand, quality Gem, natural pearls, fish, birds and sea slugs. For cultivation, there were many trees in the Spratly Islands like bread fruit, coconut and tung-oil trees (Hao, 2013). Analysts declared South China Sea is the hub of the resources (Fabinyi, 2015). There are many other mineral for industrial use placed in SCS, those are Zircon, Ilmenite, Cassiterite, Arenaceous quartz, Monazite etc. There are many salt mines in South China Sea. It is estimated that the SCS gives 604,000 ton annual output of the salt (Mustajib, 2016). These natural resources increased the importance of South China Sea. These resources are the big reason of the stimulation of the neighboring countries for the occupation of South China Sea. Basically dispute over the South China Sea and its islands initiated during 1970s. Due to oil shortage, world realize the importance of the oil and every country started effort for oil. This was the time when first time Philippines claimed for the Spratly Islands due to the oil reservoirs. It is possibility of existence of large hydrocarbon resources with other minerals like tin, copper and manganese. Surveys in the 1960s and 1970s strongly indicated the presence of these resources in islands of the SCS (Dosch, 2015).

Oil and gas resources have special attraction for the claimants of the Paracel and Spratly Island. Geo-physical surveys which were conducted by Philippine, Malaysia and Brunei during 1960s and 1970s broadly got the attention of the whole world to this region. These surveys showed the oil and gas resources in SCS. Oil rising prices increased the importance of the Spratly Island. Philippines initiated the first commercial field in Palawan Island at Reed Bank with Swedish and Philippines companies on March 1976. Chinese and Vietnamese interests increased in Spratly Islands due to the oil exploration and the Philippine’s initiative (Buszynski, 2015, p, 10). Due to precious resources many experts say the SCS as “second Persian Gulf” (Amry, 2015). Chinese agency, the Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining estimated that there is more than seventeen billion barrels crude oil in South China Sea which can be compared with Kuwait crude oil of 13 billion tons (Shaohua, 2006).

Natural Resources in SCS (Lee B. , 2014)

According to the US energy information agency, the SCS contains eleven billion barrel oil which is equal to total oil resources of Mexico. The SCS also contains 190 trillion cubic feet natural gas resources (Miller, 2017). An Indian navy captain reported that South China Sea has 7 billion barrel oil reserves and 900 trillion cubic feet natural gas reserves (Nair, 2012, p. 65). The US geological survey gave a report in which they estimated that there is additional 12 billion barrel oil and 160 trillion cubic feet oil in South China Sea which is still undiscovered (Metelitsa & Kupfer, 2014). Paracel Island is a home of natural resources and minerals. The US Energy Information Administration (USEIA) published a report in 2013 and estimated that Paracel Island contains 1 trillion cubic feet natural gas (Bouchat, 2014).

Fish is an important part of human nutrition. It provides healthy and hygienic proteins. South China Sea region is very rich in fishing resources. Twelve per cent fishing of the globe is produced annually in this region (Murray, 2016). The Spratly Islands is one of the world’s dense and richest fishing grounds with up to 7.5 ton of fish per sq. km (Shicun, 2013). Role of fish in surrounding countries like China, Vietnam and Philippines boost the fishing industry of these countries and participate its role in the economy of these countries (Mustajib, 2016). Paracel Island provide China and Vietnam closest point of fishing. Paracel Island are the hub of fishing and world’s fourth productive fishing zones in earth. It contributes world’s 10 percent fishing on annual basis. Fishes of Paracel Island made China as world’s largest consumer and exporter country and Vietnam achieved second foreign exchange and earned 7 percent of its GDP (Bouchat, 2014, p. 6). In this way fishing contributes a vital role in the economy of China and Vietnam.

China has commenced bundle of oil explorations in South China Sea to fulfill its energy needs. Following are the details about the Chinese oil exploration adventures which certainly cause the displeasures of the other stack holders especially Vietnam and Philippine. China signed an agreement with the US oil-gas exploration company on May 1992 for exploration of oil and gas. In 1994 China and Vietnam engaged foreign companies in Spratly Islands and Gulf of Tonkin (Shicun, 2013, p. 112-113). The People’s Republic of China announced its oil exploration in deep sea near the Spratly Islands on 3 May 2014 and Chinese state owned China National Off Shore Oil Corporation begun its work in the deep sea. This was the disputed territory between China and Vietnam. Vietnam protested in this Chinese act (Dicke & Holbig, 2014).

Chinese national oil company China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has increased the relations with international companies for oil exploration in SCS. China as the second largest economy and first largest energy consumer needs to exploit the energy resource. This is the reason that China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) is working with coordination of British Petroleum BP, Petro-Canada, Australian BHP Billiton, Brazil’s Petrobras, and Hong Kong-owned and Canada-based Husky Energy (Bouchat, 2014).

Oil, gas and other natural resources are the part of interests of Vietnam to maintain its claim and control in SCS. These resources and geo-strategic importance of the SCS has made Vietnam an imperative country of the region. There are many exploration activities of Vietnam performed for tapping gas and natural resources in SCS.

Vietnam entered a contract with Norwegian company for a seismic survey in 1992. In 1994 China and Vietnam engaged foreign companies in Spratly Islands and Gulf of Tonkin. A dispute started between China and Vietnam due to petro-Vietnam contract with the US Company for explorations. During 2007 to 2008, Vietnam started to make deal with international oil companies like Exxon Mobile and BP Conoco to work in Spratly Island. This deal triggered the anger of China and strongly protested over it. Vietnam’s exploration of resources near Vanguard Bank in 2011 again triggered the tension between the two countries (Shicun, 2013, p. 112-113).

The SCS has vital importance for Philippines due to its strategic locations and its natural resources. These natural resources are the bone of the Philippines economy and a huge number of populations are engaged in fishing and getting benefits from natural resources like oil, gas and other sea and land resources. Spratly Islands is the most important group of islands near Philippines Palawan province. Philippines is the nearest country closer to the Spratly Islands then China and Vietnam. Government engaged the foreign oil companies for the exploration of the oil in this group of islands. Spratly Islands and its surrounding water are full of fishing resources. Due to dense area of the Spratly Islands for fishing, it involved the big population of the fishermen in this area. Almost 1.61 million Philippine’s are involved in fishing which is 15 percent of the Philippines population. Fishing is the focal point of Philippines economy and contributes 4.3 per cent of its GDP (Shicun, 2013, p. 127).

South China Sea is one of the busiest trade routes in the world. It links the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean. The SCS has great importance in the world trade routes. It joins the Pacific Ocean to Indian Ocean. The SCS partakes the 50% of the global trade shipping and marine passage (Dosch, 2015). The SCS is the passage of five trillion dollars trade every year (Murray, 2016). There are two major ports in this area; Singapore port in the south of the South China Sea and Hong Kong port in its north (McKinnon, 2011). South China Sea links the Asia, America and Europe through these ports. Spratly Islands stretches about 1,000 km and all shipping and air traffic in SCS, passes near these islands (Shicun, 2013). Only 270 merchant ships had been passing from Spratly Islands during 1980s but the strength has increased magically with the passage of time (General Assembly Fourth Committee, 2016).

It is estimated that approximately 5 trillion dollars commercial goods pass through this route. Big industrial powers of this region like the People’s Republic of China, South Korea and Japan rely upon the Middle East’s oil which is 25% of the South China Sea Traffic. East Asian countries, exporting finished goods from West, also rely on this route. The oil which is imported from Middle East reached Malacca strait through Indian Ocean and entered the South China Sea. This is the reason; the passes of the SCS have great importance in this sea route. In comparison to sea traffic, the SCS routes have three times heavy sea traffic rout than Suez Canal and five times than Panama Canal. South China Sea is the passage of energy, finished goods and raw material. It is the passage of two third energy supply of South Korea, 80 per cent of crude oil of China and 60 per cent energy of Taiwan and Japan (Kaplan, 2016). In this way, South China Sea has vital importance for the regional economic powers. South China Sea is also the one of the biggest maritime route of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Most of the East Asian countries export LNG form Qatar, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is estimated that about 6 trillion cubic feet LNG which is the half of the global LNG passed through SCS. LNG is exported by regional countries like Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and rest of the Asian countries. The growing demands of the LNG in East Asia are making this region much important for LNG export. China’s increasing demand for LNG is bringing China towards Middle East and Africa for the export of the LNG and the quantity of the LNG passing through South China Sea will increase during coming year (Metelitsa & Kupfer, 2014, p. 6). China is the second largest economy of the world and it has trade relations with every country of the world. China is the first and second largest trading partner of the 78 countries of the world. It is estimated that China is the first, second and third largest trading partner of every country on the Earth (Auslin, 2017). 80% of the oil is transported to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan via this rout (Dosch, 2015). Chinese trade goods are almost dependent in this sea. On the other hand, Japan as the third largest economy is heavily dependent in South China Sea (Cronin & Lee, March 2017).

Wu Shicun (2013) says that it is presumed that the control of the Spratly Islands is basically direct or indirect control of the transits from Singapore to Hong Kong and from Japan to straits of Malacca and from Guangzhou to Manila. He says that the SCS covers half of the world trade passage. Approximately, a grand quantity of oil is transported from Middle East and Africa to China, South Korea and Japan from the SCS passage. The SCS also links China with world. China’s 90 % trade and 50% transaction accrued through the SCS. Vietnamese and Philippines exports and imports depend upon SCS.

South China Sea has geo-strategic, geo-politic and geo-economic importance due to half of the world trade passage and presence of precious resources of oil and gas. The SCS is passage of half of the world trade. Almost all the East Asian countries are dependent on this sea. The SCS is also the home of precious natural resources like oil and natural gas. These reasons enhance the importance of this place. This is the reason that China, Vietnam, Philippines and other regional and extra-regional countries are interested to control it. China is taking interest in the place and involved in constructing military bases and building artificial islands in the SCS. On the other hand, the US is providing its assistance to Philippines and Vietnam in every respect. The US has also initiated the patrolling in South China Sea with the name of Freedom of Navigation in international sea. Philippines has numerous military agreements with the US and gave its military bases to the US. The US has lifted the arm embargo in Vietnam for empowering Vietnam against China in SCS (Glaser & Vitello, 2014, p. 2).

Expansion of China in the South China Sea

South China Sea is important for China on the basis of its geo-strategic, geo-economic, geo-politics. Sovereignty over the whole South China means the establishment of Chinese hegemony in this region and China will have upper hand in this region. This region will also serve China to secure its trade route and provide China natural resources like oil and gas etc. One of Chinese agency has estimated that there is more than seventeen billion barrels crude oil available at South China Sea (Shaohua, 2006). Tom Miller (2017) wrote in his book “China’s Asia Dream” that the US energy information agency presented its survey reports which described that the SCS contains eleven billion barrel oil and 190 trillion cubic feet natural gas resources. These resources stimulate China to control this place.

Chinese control of the South China Sea is the biggest threat for Japan and the US. Chinese control over South China Sea means that China can occupy the oil lifeline of the South Korea and Japan. It will provide strong position of China over the US and other regional countries. Chinese administration announced to build new infrastructure in Woody islands and created new Sansha administrative district which would cover Chinese claimed territories (Sutter & Huang, 2013). Woody Island is the largest military Chinese Liberation Army Air Force first time launched H-6K strategic bomber on Woody Island in order increase its power in South China Sea (Panda, 2018). China can use the SCS as a proactive Bastian for its JL-2 missile carrying submarine and can target the US bases in East Asia. Chinese control over the SCS can also bring in danger the American oil companies working in the SCS (Buszynski, 2015, p. 16).  China is developing military bases in South China Sea with manmade islands on Spratly Island. These islands contain full military bases and launching pads. The basic purpose of developing the artificial islands is to enhance military power in South China Sea and in case of emergency bring more troops through rapid air services (BBC, 2017). In this way, China is establishing its hegemony in South China Sea region. A power game has commenced among the countries of the region and other stack-holders. The U.S has interests in the region and it is also vital for its hegemony. This is the reason that U.S wants to contain China to preserve its hegemony in the region.