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Fish, gas and oil

Rodion Ebbighausen / act
September 5, 2012

The tension in the South China Sea has escalated since the start of the 21st century, as neighboring states vie to protect their strategic and economic interests, but what are they really fighting for?

Image: Kyodo News/AP/dapd

Its geopolitical location, an abundance of fish and huge gas and oil reserves make the South China Sea particularly attractive to the 10 states that all lay claim to parts of it - China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia.

There are also hundreds of islands and reefs in the South China Sea, which the Vietnamese call the East Sea. The Paracel Islands (known as the Xisha in China and the Hoang Sa in Vietnam), the Spratly Islands (known as the Nansha Qundao in China, the Truong Sa in Vietnam and the Kapuluan ng Kalayaan in the Philippines) are the most important disputed island groups.

The sea is also important to the rest of the world as it connects Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia with East Asia and at least one third of global shipping transits through its waters.

Südchinesisches Meer Philippinen Taiwan
The Spratly Islands are a key source of tensionImage: AP

Almost all of China's oil exports arrive via the South China Sea and nearly all of China's exports to Europe and Africa go in the opposite direction.

"In strategic and military terms, the South China Sea is in a key position that enables control not only over South East Asia but over the wider realm of South and East Asia too," Gerhard Will from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin told DW.

Fish in abundance

The South China Sea is also home to an abundance of fish. According to the International Crisis Group, 10 percent of the annual global fish yield hails from this huge body of water. However, the fisheries are at risk from over-fishing and pollution.

More and more, fishermen are being forced out into deeper waters to make a living but here they sometimes clash with maritime patrol forces protecting their national interests.

Fishermen have been arrested, their nets damaged and their boats confiscated by the security forces of other countries. Such incidents have increased in recent years.

Philippinen China Streit um Seegebiet Fischereikontrolle im Südchinesischen Meer Fischereikontrolle
Fishermen have fallen victim to international political disputesImage: dapd

Not only is fish an important source of protein for the population, it is often an important branch of the economy. In 2010, the fishing industry made up 7 percent of Vietnam's GDP. In the Philippines, some 1.5 million people earn their living from fishing.

Rich in gas and oil

However, it is the unknown riches of gas and oil that are creating most of the tension over the South China Sea, especially as the energy needs of China and Southeast Asian nations grow as their economies boom.

"The deep waters have not yet been explored. Companies are reluctant because of the border disputes," Hans Georg Babies from the German Mineral Resources Agency told DW.

Estimates for the amount of oil range from four to 30 billion tons. The latter figure would be equivalent to all of Saudi Arabia's oil reserves.

However, Babies warned against making such wild guesses. He said that certain explorations made by the US in the 1990s in certain parts of the South China Sea had only been able to confirm the existence of about two billion tons of oil.

Gerhard Will explained that wild speculation was one of the main reasons for the current spats in the region. He said it was problematic that the estimates were so “imprecise” and the expectations so "high."

Philippinen China Streit um Seegebiet Fischereikontrolle im Südchinesischen Meer Kriegsschiff
Surveillance ships are sent out to protect national interestsImage: Reuters

"If there were clarity about how many resources there actually are in the region, a joint resource management program could be developed," he said.

In view of the current climate, observers do not think a joint solution will be agreed upon in the near future.

The rival states have been boosting their navies. China has built an underground submarine base on the southernmost tip of Hainan island, whereas Vietnam has been buying frigates and gunboats from Russia, and the Philippines plan to buy submarines from South Korea.

Nonetheless, despite such activity and the aggressive rhetoric, analysts do not believe the tension over the South China Sea will lead to serious military conflict as the wider implications would be too severe.