MADRID –- The past year has seen a bold new round of provocations in the South China Sea, where the People’s Republic of China is trying to expand its regional hegemony. The central issue is territorial. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations can claim exclusive economic rights in waters up to 200 nautical miles off their coastline. Where these zones would overlap, claims generally go to the nearest state.
According to these principles, most of the economically vital South China Sea is shared between Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. But China claims the Spratly islands, a rocky and unpopulated archipelago deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—and the Paracel islands, a group of reefs and islands close to Vietnam.
According to Beijing, its EEZ projects from both island chains, which puts almost the entire South China Sea in Chinese hands. At stake is strategic control of sea lanes that carry an estimated $5.3 trillion in annual trade, highly lucrative fishing stocks, and promising oil and gas resources. Although most of the South China Sea’s proven reserves lie in undisputed areas, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 2.5 billion barrels of oil and 25.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be available around the Spratlys.
On January 1 of last year, China instituted new rules requiring foreign fishing vessels to obtain permits in order to fish in much of the South China Sea. The move drew criticism from Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States, but none were in a position to force the Chinese to back down. In an excellent analysisthe following month, analyst Robert Haddick called out Beijing for pursuing a policy of “salami-slicing”.
The metaphor contextualizes the new fishing restrictions as part of a larger pattern of incremental moves that included the sudden establishment of a Chinese city on Woody Island in the Paracels in July 2012, and the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea in November 2013. In 2014, Chinese survey vessels have reportedly been operating discreetly in the Philippines’ EEZ, likely to gain a better sense of the petroleum resources that might be available there. Beijing was clearly betting that no single step would be enough for its neighbors to risk armed conflict—but that collectively, they would achieve China’s goal of controlling the South China Sea.
In the months that followed, the salami-slicing continued. In March 2014, Chinese Coast Guard vessels turned back a pair of ships sent by Manila to reprovision Filipino troops stationed on a disputed outpost in the Spratlys. Then in May, China set up a billion-dollar oil rig unannounced in disputed waters off Vietnam, surrounded by a flotilla of protective ships from the Chinese Maritime Police Bureau.
Vietnamese vessels went out to meet them, leading to several days of vigorous clashes between the two sides, using water cannons and ramming actions. In June, Hanoi released video of a Chinese vessel ramming a Vietnamese fishing boat that soon sank. China appears not to have suffered any comparable losses. In July, China unilaterally withdrew the rig— stating that it had completed its exploratory mission — but Vietnam would have been in no position to prevent it from staying.
Then, in August, a Chinese fighter intercepted an American reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, performing abrupt manoeuvres perilously close to the U.S. aircraft. This risked a repeat of the 2001 incident off Hainan Island where such a mid-air collision led to a diplomatic crisis after the crew of the crippled American plane was interned on Chinese soil for 11 days. Instead of sober reflection, Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong exhorted his pilots: “A knife at the throat is the only deterrence. From now on, we must fly even closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft”.
This combination of brinksmanship and salami-slicing by incremental and escalating actions is dangerous indeed. The worst-case scenario, of course, is a full-on armed confrontation—but both the Chinese and their opponents realize that war would be catastrophic. Much more likely is a steady drumbeat of small grabs that pose risk to those wishing to do business in the South China Sea.
In 2012, China National Offshore Oil Corp invited foreign companies to bid on nine oil exploration blocks within Vietnam’s internationally-recognized EEZ, apparently including some areas which had already been leased out by Vietnam. While major firms like Exxon Mobil have so far avoided wading into the disputed zones, and will likely continue to do so, smaller players with less to lose have expressed interest. In comparison, around the same time, the Philippines invited bidding on two oil blocks in disputed territory, but received rather little interest.
Whatever firms bet, there will be more provocations. Survey ships and drilling platforms can expect to be harassed by the other side, and company personnel and equipment may be endangered by the struggle going on around them. Some firms will likely hire private security vessels for protection. Although such forces would be no match for Chinese warships in an armed confrontation, their presence would make it riskier and more difficult to drive away client assets. Armed guards aboard platforms could be employed as an additional deterrent.
This poses serious risks, though—untrained private security could instigate a clash by mistake, and even a small spark in the South China Sea has the potential to escalate to international conflict. Further, the 100 Series Rules for the Use of Force, which were developed in 2013 to provide broad guidance for private maritime security companies, are intended for actions against pirates, and would not provide sound guidance for potential standoffs with state actors. For companies wishing to hire security, then, retaining only the most experienced and professional private maritime security companies must be a priority.
About Intelography: Intelography offers subscription based access to risk profiling, threat assessments and security trends for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Providing content and insights that allow organizations to inform the process of reacquiring, recommissioning, maintaining and protecting (physical and human) assets in conflict, post conflict or high risk areas. Content and analysis includes contributions from staff analysts, internationally recognized subject matter experts, guest contributors, content syndication from established industry observers and service providers, thought leaders, complimented by an extensive network of in country contributors (Israel, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, CIS, Ukraine, Russia, the Balkans, West Africa). Subscription pricing varies according to access requirements and is offered on an ad-hoc, region specific or global access basis. Additional services include one-to-one analyst Q&A’s, workshops, consulting, and re-publication rights.
8. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/world/asia/in-high-seas-china-moves-unilaterally.html? module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22%7D&_r=0
9. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-05/vietnam-says-china-still-harassing-boats-shows-video-of-sinking.html 10. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/world/asia/chinese-oil-rig-near-vietnam-to-be-moved.html