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IDSA COMMENT

China to Survey Disputed Marine Territories for Natural Resources

January 11, 2013

After establishing Sansha, passing a new maritime regulation from Hainan, and, printing maps on passports, the Chinese authorities have now unveiled a plan to survey all marine and island territories for marine resources. This was reported by the Xinhua website at 09:42:31 hrs (Beijing time) on 10 January 2013.1

Although the report indicates that the survey will be carried out throughout the country, it also specifically mentions Sansha (i.e. South China Sea) and baseline points (which would include all disputed marine territories). The terse report, when translated, reads as follows:

“The 2nd Chinese Comprehensive Survey of Marine and Island Resources will be started sometime in the first half of this year. The survey is expected to be completed by December 2016. By this survey, the Chinese hope to fill earlier gaps regarding the distribution, quality and quantity of resources in important marine and island territories like Sansha and other baseline points.”

Undoubtedly, the unveiling of this new plan would draw criticism from other countries having disputes with China on marine territories (including islands), with the probable exclusion of Taiwan. But of greater concern is the escalation of disputes mainly in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

It remains to be seen what measures countries such as Japan and Vietnam resort to when Chinese survey vessels actually begin conducting surveys in marine territories and islands which they claim to be their own. One has also to watch what security measures these Chinese survey vessels employ to thwart actions from vessels of the other claimant countries.

Earlier, countries in this part of the world involved in such disputes have been known to have resorted to building structures, cutting sea cables, using water cannons, permitting civilian demonstrations, allowing military or para-military vessels and aircraft to pass and patrol, and the like, to strengthen their claims on such territories. Although there has been talk of joint exploitation of resources, nothing has really happened on the ground to show that these disputes can be amicably resolved by the parties without sensationalising them from the angle of national territory and sovereignty.2

Of late, the trend is to strengthen their respective claims through administrative and legislative measures. The aim is to showcase the supremacy of the respective parliaments and governments. This approach also tends to make all “national territory” non-negotiable. Japan, China and Vietnam have all attempted this in the recent past.

The current move by China also seems to have been made with the objective of strengthening its claim to disputed marine territories by conducting “surveys” which a country normally does in its own territory. It also has the potential of keeping the other disputants on the edge. Besides, the sheer frequency with which China has recently been able to come up with such claims has also given it a definite psychological advantage over others as a first mover.

However, the flip side of this Chinese approach is that it would most certainly end up with an outcome most disliked by China – the involvement and long term presence of the United States. That actually would mean a failure of China’s vision, diplomacy and regional influence. By the same coin, it would also mean that it is a collective failure of not only the disputing countries, but also of multilateral regional forums such as ASEAN, ARF, ADMM Plus, etc., which are striving for acceptable peaceful solutions to the disputes. The stalemate is mostly about whether China has its way in negotiating the disputes bilaterally or whether the others get it done multilaterally.

Given such a deadlock and possibilities of escalation, it goes without saying that apart from fielding their own military and para-military forces, the only way open to the other claimants in the short term is continue to involve bigger powers from elsewhere such as the United States, Russia and India. However, the big bet which China has placed is that none of these powers would be able to throw in their actual military weight behind any of the regional claimants to fight China despite policies such as the US Pivot to Asia or India’s Look East. Ultimately, China feels confident that its sheer power can both shield the region from outside influence and drive a hard bargain in these disputes.

The United States may have some traction in the form of old allies and new willing partners in the region to enable it to play a role to resolve the disputes. While Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia may be counted as old allies, Vietnam and Indonesia may be considered as countries now willing to partner the United States in regional territorial disputes. However, since China is unwilling to grant any such space to the United States or any such "outsider", the prospects of an active and direct US role in the matter is ruled out.

Russia is keen to tap into the natural resources under these seas, but is aware that it cannot get directly involved in the territorial disputes. Besides, it has other pressing security concerns elsewhere to attend to.3 India too is expected by certain regional countries to mark its presence in the area possibly to hedge against China. However, the prospects of any decisive Indian role appear dim for the moment although it does seem that the limited Indian presence in the region has reduced the possibility of unilateral military action there.

As is known, India is exploring for hydrocarbons in a part of the South China Sea under Vietnamese possession but claimed by China. It is a challenge for India to hold on to the contract between ONGC Videsh Limited and Petro Vietnam and yet prevail upon the disputing parties to bring about a peaceful solution. Needless to say, India’s leverage in the region would receive a quantum boost if it can present a formula for peaceful resolution acceptable to all the parties concerned.

What shape events assume in the coming months is a good case for the soothsayers. But what seems to be highly probable amidst this trend of irredentism is that East and South-east Asia may gradually descend into conflict zones, and take down with them the potential, prosperity, peace and dreams of an Asian century.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.