China's power play

Aug. 23, 2010
China's unilateral claim to most of the waters of the South China Sea is a transparent power play or "sea grab" that cannot be rationalized under prevailing legal regimes.

China's unilateral claim to most of the waters of the South China Sea is a transparent power play or "sea grab" that cannot be rationalized under prevailing legal regimes. The Obama administration and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton deserve credit for seeing this action for what it is and for vigorously opposing it. Indeed, China's vociferous protestation to the involvement of the US in this issue reflects the response of a nation "trying to run one" in the absence of any sound legal rationale.

Coastal nations on the South China Sea include Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. Individually, and even collectively, they have limited naval power to resist Chinese claims. However, each has a vital interest in accessing the waters of the South China Sea beyond its respective exclusive economic zone (EEZ) since those areas may well prove productive of oil, gas, and other resources. All nations bordering the sea have the right to seek such resources in their offshore areas just as surely as China has the right to do so off its shores.

No nation gains an advantage in delaying plans to partition the South China Sea into discrete national areas with defined borders–borders that the involved nations can agree upon and will respect. Such an agreement would grant the right to develop deepwater seabed resources but not impede marine navigation, overflights, or other innocent activities. Partitioning or allocation of offshore areas has been amicably worked out by other littoral nations; for example, in the North Sea and Persian Gulf.

The underlying consideration is that national differences need to be resolved before development of natural resources can begin. Oil and gas exploration, development, and production operations necessarily extend over decades and can be conducted only in a secure and politically supportive environment. Any oil professional knows that oil field operations cannot be undertaken where territorial disputes prevail and where there is an ongoing threat of hostile action. At best, offshore oil field operations are exposed to the risks of heavy weather, ship-platform collisions, underwater pipeline breaks, as well as drilling and producing mishaps. Additional threats, such as those posed by hostile military actions directed at highly vulnerable offshore facilities, would effectively preclude undertaking such operations. No prudent operator would place personnel and facilities in jeopardy by moving into disputed waters. The opportunity for mischief by hostile forces is too great and the consequences of such actions too costly. There must be an assurance of political stability to commence exploration and for production operations to thrive.

China should recognize and appreciate that the days of "might makes right" are over. Pursuing its unilateral takeover of South China Sea waters and running roughshod over the rights of other coastal nations in the area will simply delay indefinitely any development of the disputed areas. Even China must recognize the tenuousness of its claim and the potential for ongoing harassment by other nations if it were to move ahead unilaterally to assert its claim.

It is in the interest of each shoreline nation on the South China Sea, including China, to participate in the development of a plan that defines its offshore reach. Development of deepwater seabed resources can proceed securely only after the cooperative delineation of each nation's offshore rights.

Thomas Wyman
Palo Alto, Calif.

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