The Spratlys resurface

Federico Bordonaro
29 November 2006

Seven nations press their claims to a nondescript string of reefs and islets in the South China Sea

In late October and early November, Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) tried to re-launch friendly talks related to the territorial disputes of the Spratly Islands, a series of specks that from their location at the southern end of the South China Sea remain crucial to the region's geostrategic setting. They discussed broad Southeast Asian security issues and opened the way for possibly fruitful, structured diplomatic dialogue. The context, however, remains extremely complicated.

For a lackluster string of islets claimed in their entirety by four different nations -- China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and partially by three more -- Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, the contested isles and reefs are a potential catalyst for major interstate conflict. In fact, all traditional geopolitical issues are at work: sovereignty, control of vital hydrocarbons, control of the sea lines of communication and the capability to project power and influence across a broad region.

At a time when China is emerging as a political and military as well as economic power whose strategic reach expands and involves new maritime ambitions, the South China Sea issue poses a huge challenge to Washington and its Asian allies. Beijing is adopting a complex policy predicated upon diplomatic openness to enhanced cooperation with Asean and, at the same time, on a self-confident, assertive stance on the South China Sea. Washington believes that Beijing's real goal is to make China the hegemonic power in Southeast Asia and multiply its influence on the global stage.

Energy, Trade and Power
Recent media coverage on the Spratlys issue has typically concentrated on the quest for fossil energy resources since natural gas and oil play an increasingly important role in power politics. The reasons for sovereignty claims, however, are in no way limited to the hydrocarbons extraction issue alone. Control of the sea lines of communication, with its effect on energy transport and strategic military advantage, is at least as important as the much wanted oil and gas reserves.

In Asian maritime geopolitics, the South China Sea functions as a vital gateway that links the Gulf's oil to East Asia via the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Although during the recent decades of the Cold War the sometimes-aggressive Chinese policy toward Southeast Asian states was tolerated by Washington because of China's role as a counterweight to the USSR, after 1991 this state of affairs changed.

Certain figures display the importance of the Spratly Islands as a transport route: the South China Sea is the world's second busiest international sea lane and conveys roughly one-fourth of the globe's crude oil and oil products. Tokyo's tankers carry around 70 percent of Japan's oil on these sea lanes, while 90 percent of the oil needed by Washington's northeast Asian allies reaches its destination through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. Liquefied natural gas, coal, and iron ore are conveyed through the above mentioned route. The waters are also the site of a massive fishing industry. A country that would have the capability to interrupt the free navigation of the sea lines would pose a significant threat to the other powers' energy security.

As for hydrocarbons in the Spratlys, the exact amount of available resources is not easy to determine, since China's analyses are significantly different and more optimistic than U.S. and European ones. A September 2003 brief issued by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests that oil production levels for the Spratly Islands would not exceed 183,000 barrels per day, while Chinese estimates claim that a level of 1.9 million barrels per day could be attained. According to other Chinese reports, the Spratly Islands should have around 225 billion barrels of hydrocarbons -- 70 percent of which would be natural gas. No Western analysis, however, confirms such data at the moment.

Regardless, without a doubt further exploration of the Spratlys is considered to be a major stake by all regional claimants and control over hydrocarbons will remain a crucial goal for all powers involved.

Multilateralism and its Interpretations
One of the most interesting developments in the debate is undoubtedly the different use and perception of multilateralism. As a matter of fact, all players are calling for multilateral engagement and cooperation to prevent the conflicting interests from leading to a clash. On October 29, before the start of the China-Asean meeting in Nanning, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said that "regional security issues, aside from trade," would take center stage in Asean’s political-strategic dialogue with China.

Mentioning the Spratlys, Arroyo added that "instead of concentrating on conflicting claims," regional powers should "concentrate on what we can do together." Speaking at the Nanchang University the same day, she launched the proposal of a "joint exploration of the Spratly Islands," and expressed the view that the current "code of conduct" on the contested territories is "very weak."

For Manila, just like for Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur, multilateralism and a regional security approach is the best possible strategy to contain China's rising military power. Since Beijing is aiming at enhancing its deep blue navy, other regional players (among which Taiwan is the one that fears Beijing the most) wager on continued U.S. involvement in the region and Asean's enhancement.

On the contrary, China's approach to Asean and regional multilateralism appears that of a rising hegemonic power. Beijing's interests lie in avoiding major confrontations and, above all, direct confrontation with Washington in order to continue its relatively flawless pursuit of power. China's openness to strategic dialogue with Asean has the goal of lowering the risk of military conflict while gaining time to calmly, but steadily, develop its new military power.

In other words, China's waiting game is consistent with hegemonic ambitions, but it uses the tactics of progressively achieving strategic dominance and thus enhancing its negotiating capability and effectiveness.
Multilateralism could enable Washington to remain a decisive player in the Southeast Asian theater while avoiding the perils of automatic defense engagement via bilateral agreements. The United States, however, will work consistently to prevent China's domination of the South China Sea and Beijing's potential capability to choke freedom of navigation.

As expected, when U.S. President George W. Bush met with Asean leaders in Hanoi this month, he insisted -- consistently with the American tradition -- on the importance of free trade and economic liberty in Southeast Asia.

Clearly, China's persisting claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, coupled with Beijing's ambitious military improvement, will hardly be seen as reassuring by Asean members and by Washington. On the other hand, the Sino-U.S. competition is not deterministically bound to lead to a showdown in the region, as it could instead end up in a new balance of power in which regional multilateral agreements may help Washington and Beijing solve or freeze the Spratlys issue and similar controversies.

Asean's role in the future of diplomatic attempts to resolve the Spratlys question appears to be increasing. The organization, however, will probably function as a tool in the hands of the great powers rather than as an autonomous power center. China's rise as Southeast Asia's main regional power will continue in the coming years. Since Washington needs to protect US vital interests such as the liberty of navigation and regional stability, the US will likely be called to a new and comprehensive engagement policy toward Beijing, which can be implemented if the reality of a new multipolar power configuration in Asia is acknowledged.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of All comments should be directed to


Anonymous said...

There are ed hardy shirts
,pretty ed hardy shirt for men,

ed hardy womens in the ed hardy online store

designed by ed hardy ,
many cheap ed hardy shirt ,glasses,caps,trouers ed hardy shirts on sale ,

You can go to to have a look ,you may find one of ed hardy clothing fit for you
Top qualitymen's jacket,
These cheap jacket are on sale now,you can find
north face jackets inmage on our web
Ralph Lauren Polo Shirtsbuberry polo shirts

Do you wannaghd hair straighteners for you own , we have many
cheap ghd hair straightenersin style and great,you can choose one from these
hair straighteners
Authentic chaussure puma
chaussure sport
And chaussure nike shoes
Come here to have a look of our Wholesale Jeans
Many fashionMens Jeans ,eye-catching
Womens Jeans ,and special out standing
Blue Jeans ,you can spend less money on our
Discount Jeans but gain really fine jeans, absolutely a great bargain.


Anonymous said...

Anothre set of ralph lauren polo in three colors. Burbrery Polo Shirts come with a graduation of colors on the chest. The new shiki Cheap polo shirts logo is on the chest. Comes in all layres and can be worned tucked in or out wholesale polo shirts.
Also comes with sculpted collar and arm cuffs.Flat knit collar, Contrast placket and half moon, Mothre-of-pearl buttons and tennis tail, Soft double knit piqué,100% cotton ralph lauren polo shirts. If you lend your embroidrere a sample cheap ralph lauren polos that will help you get the closest match to the original embroidreed design. The artwork you provide will sreve as a template for your embroidrey set-up but discount ralph lauren polos can't be used to identify some stitch types, give precise sizing of embroidreed elements and show thread polo clothing colors.

Anonymous said...

What prince-o3-tour would be bettre in my opinion would be to remove the wrist straps and the skin, and instead make it a 2 babolat pure drive, 2 stereing wheels, 1 baseball bat and 1 golf club. Still, this package is great value for your money. When my wife informed me that Emporio Armani was now pushing its own signature wilson k six, the EA7, I’ve got to admit, I was intrigued. Italian designres producing tennis rackets? How fashion forward of thstrong. I love it. Head microgel is style and preformance at cheap tennis racquets best. Haute couture meets the hard courts.

Anonymous said...

Womens Handbags is one of most popular designer bags brand all over the world. The following line is available in different nice looking and charming colors, also in favorable price. These knock off designer handbags are designed to cater for fashion and elegant ladies. I very much like the cheap purses, but it is very cheap handbags. Made of high-grade leather, light weight. Wholesale Handbags are the words the overall appearance of the color brown.
ralph lauren polo
burberry polo shirt

Anonymous said...

ed hardy clothes Highlights of the composition and color-rich design, simple lines so that ed hardy t-shirts has become a pleasure to look at, but the Ed Hardy-rich products, such as, ed hardy clothing people ed hardy sunglasses and look forward to the next ed hardy shirts changing the color of the years. ED HARDY personality patterns in order to attract the ed hardy mens and ed hardy womens .
babolat aeropro drive
wilson k factor
babolat tennis racket

Anonymous said...

quelle chaussures pumapaire de chaussures pour hommes choisir?!? La réponse est toute simple:chaussures nike une paire de baskets en partie vernies. du 17ème au 5ème rang, qui lui offre une place dans un top 5 largement tn requindominé par les sites de vente de produits high-tech. Le site de réservation d'hôtels gagne pour sa part 47 places et atteint le 8ème rang.

Anonymous said...

Charlestoncheap columbia jackets. turned a pair of double plays to do the trick. spyder jacketsThe had at least one runner on in every inning but the first and outhit the RiverDogs by a 12-6 margin Lawal should be a focal point of the Yellow cheap polo shirts along with highly touted newcomer, 6-9 Derrick Favors, rated as the No. 1 power forward on the ESPNU 100. The Yellow Jackets

Anonymous said...

Cheap Brand Jeans ShopMen Jeans - True Religion Jeans, burberry polo shirtsGUCCI Jeans, Levi's Jeans, D&G Jeans, RED MONKEY Jeans, Cheap JeansArmani Jeans, Diesel Jeans, Ed hardy Jeans, Evisu Jeans, Women JeansJack&Jones Jeans...Lacoste Polo Shirts, , Burberry Polo Shirts.wholesale Lacoste polo shirts and cheap polo shirtswith great price. offers lot of 10 lacoste polo shirts and lot of 20 cheap polo shirts. offers classic fit polo shirts. polo clothing

Anonymous said...

nike shoes & Puma Shoes Online- tn nike,puma shoes,puma cat, baskets cheap nike shox, air nike shox r4 torch, cheap nike air, nike running shoes air max, puma speed and more. Paypal running shoes Enjoy your shopping experience on Nike & Puma Shoes Online Store.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much!!cheap polo shirts men'ssweate,Burberry Polo Shirts lacoste sweater, ralph lauren Columbia Jackets,ski clothing. Free Shipping, PayPal Payment. Enjoy your shopping experience on can find the father who desire fashionable, intellectual mens clothing simultaneouslyGod bless you!I really agree with your opinions.Also,there are some new fashion things here,gillette razor blades.gillette mach3 razor bladesfor men.As for ladies,gillette venus razor blades must the best gift for you in summer,gillette fusion blades are all the best choice for you.Fantastic!God bless you!Meanwhile,you can visit my ,we have the highest quality but the lowest price fashion products wholesale from China.Here are the most popular China Wholesale products for all of you.You can visit .Also the is a great choice for you.