Disputed South China Sea hydrocarbons in perspective
Maritime and territorial disputes have been a source of tension among the states bordering the South China Sea for decades. These disputes are often framed as being at least partially driven by the desire to gain access to much needed seabed hydrocarbon resources. Suggestions that major oil and gas riches are at stake in the South China Sea have arguably encouraged States to be inflexible in their claims and negatively impacted on bilateral relations. Indeed, controversial incidents relating to hydrocarbon exploration have occurred on multiple occasions, and as recently as mid-2011.
This paper critically examines the South China Sea ‘hydrocarbon factor’. The wide range of estimates that circulate in the public domain are discussed in detail. Using a hypothetical and optimistic estimate of disputed oil and gas reserves based on the best possible interpretation of available data, depletion and production curve analysis is applied to determine the production profile of disputed reserves, and an evaluation of their potential benefit to energy security for each country with claims in the South China Sea is made. Analysis shows that constraints on production mean that disputed South China Sea oil and gas may only constitute a small part of the solution to Southeast Asia's growing energy security challenges, and does not have the capacity to reverse the trend of growing reliance on imports to the region. Escalating demand for imported hydrocarbons would instead reinforce the importance of sea-lane security to regional energy security.