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Between a rock and a hard place: Heated “diplomatic” exchanges, protests and counter-protests, the issuing of competitive and overlapping oil concessions, military sabre-rattling and confrontations at sea. All of these have been featured in recent debates over conflicting territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea – one of the principal potential flashpoints for conflict in the Asia-Pacific region. Clive Schofield provides maritime geographical and legal context to the disputes while teasing out some of the key drivers behind them. He argues that a reason for the apparently extreme nature of some of the claims advanced, notably China’s, is a strong desire on the part of claimants to access the region’s perceived seabed energy resources. Expectations that the South China Sea is likely to offer a silver bullet for regional energy security concerns are misplaced, and further friction appears highly likely.
The South China Sea has long been regarded as one of the key potential flashpoints for conflict in the Asia-Pacific, alongside North Korea and Taiwan. Recently tensions have been on the rise and relations between China and the other South China Sea littoral states have become more fraught – characterised not only by diplomatic claim and counter-claim (though frequently framed in less than diplomatic language) but also, more worryingly, by confrontations at sea.
Context, as they say, is everything. This article briefly outlines geopolitical drivers that sustain these complex and seemingly intractable disputes, and seeks to shed light on their international legal dimensions. It suggests that China in particular has been driven to adopt extreme positions in order to secure access to what Beijing tends to regard as its proper share of the resources, especially seabed energy reserves, of the South China Sea. However, such resources may not, in fact, prove to be the kind of panacea for regional energy security concerns that they are sometimes perceived to represent. Nonetheless, if present trends are sustained, further incidents are highly likely. Before proceeding to assessment of those issues, a brief consideration of the disputed South China Sea islands is in order.