The South China Sea: Shifting disputes into unity
I.Yaipharemba Singh | 10 Jun 2012

While resolving disputes the concept of Joint Resource Development, if put into effect, can nurture collaboration among the states which may establish a conflict-free relationship and sharing of resources in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea disputes over territory, maritime may predict a new security challenge among Southeast Asian nations. Within the South China Sea, the Paracel Islands,thePratas Islands,the Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank have been sources of dispute, but the Spratly Islands area, contested by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, has drawn the greatest attention. The interest for the islands increased dramatically after the oil crisis in 1973 for primarily four reasons: the disputed regions’ strategic importance, the increased importance of the maritime resources for the regional states, the areas’ potentially very large reserve of oil and gas and the nationalistic sentiments in the different nations demand those countries should not lose more territory. With the attaching of sovereignty feelings in the islands each claimants are in no position to reduce their claims.

UNCLOS specified a 12 nm territorial sovereignty boundary from a nation’s coastline, as well as a 200 nautical mile creation of exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which includes the seabed resources within that sphere from the shoreline.

The untapped oil and gas deposits surrounding the islands make them geopolitically significant. Estimates say the area holds about 900 trillion cubic ft (25 trillion cubic m) the same as the proven reserves of Qatar. The area is also one of the region’s main shipping lanes, and is home to a fishing ground that supplies the livelihood of thousands of people in South-east Asia.

Summary of the Claims

            The Japanese occupied the Spratly Islands during the World War II and used the island of Itu Aba as cover for surveillance and as a supply depot, but the Japanese claim lapsed with their defeat. The Chinese and Vietnamese claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea are both based on historical claims of discovery and occupation. The Chinese case is better documented, but the extent of the “nine dotted line” remains ambiguous and contradictory. Taiwan’s claims to Chinese ownership of the South China Sea are those similar to those of the PRC. The Philippine claim is based on the “discovery” of the unclaimed islands of “Kalayaan” (Freedomland) by an explorer, Tomas Cloma, in 1956. The Malaysian claim is based on its continental shelf claim and discovery. The Bruneian claim is also is also based on a straight-line projection of its EEZ as specificed by UNCLOS.

Changing the course of dispute into a collaborative factor          

          Joint Resource Development (JRD) in the South China Sea is an idea that has been purposed in various forms, including as part of the Indonesian-hosted workshops concerning South China Sea, University of Hawaii. However, Chinese concept of “joint resource development” appears to be defined cooperation in disputed areas, whileASEAN claimants appear to prefer a multilateral joint development scheme. One common suggested solution for the disputes is the establishment of a Joint Resource Development Authority/Agreement (JDA) for the area. There are three main reasons states may be willing to enter into JDA’s. First, the desire, in each state, to produce hydrocarbon resources outweighs the desire to win a boundary dispute, some other item on the national agenda of each of the states. Second, the states already have close relations or they see the opportunity, in the JDA, to demonstrate trust, amity and friendship which will lead to closer relation and unity among the disputing states. Finally, when all lack sufficient management capacity, then by pooling resources in JDA could allow all too effectively exploit their offshore resources.

            In order for a JDA to be practical the states involved must accept that they are sharing the resources in the area with all. Should any consider the agreement to be an interim measures that can be revoked at any time the agreement to be interim measure that can be revoked at any time the agreement is doomed to failure. In addition the terms and conditions of the agreement must be fully supported and accepted by all the participants. With process like this agreement in South China Sea would minimize and in path of multilateral exploration, a sense of unity could be born.

Joint Resource Development, mechanisms would function within a theoretical point system to establish the extent of a particular claimant’s relations to, and corresponding revenues from the resources of the Islands. The point system would recognize a claim without the establishment of hierarchy of claims and without reaching final conclusions of law or requiring a tribunal to address the merits of a claim. Brunei’s claim is based on the principle of Continental shelf, earning one point in the point system. China’s claim is based on historical occupancy, EEZ principle and finally last point is asserted by Taiwan claim. Any joint development program which separates China and Taiwan’s claims would become involved, confused and generate a dysfunctional joint resource development formula. Taiwan’s claims is similar with China, thus China and Taiwan earn three points each. Malaysia’s claim is based on two theories: first, continental shelf extension and second, the discovery and occupation of Six islands. Malaysia therefore, has two points. The Philippines’ claim is based on adjacency, and discovery and perspective acquisition, providing the Philippines with two points. Finally, Vietnam’s claim to the Islands is based on historical visits/possession “from time immemorial.” In the alternative, Vietnam asserts succession to France’s rights. Vietnam’s second basis is on its continental shelf. Vietnam’s total points are two.

On a 100-point scale each claimant would receive revenues based on their points. The claimants would, therefore, receive the following percentage of revenues from energy and marine resources: Brunei, ten percent; China, thirty percent; Malaysia, twenty percent; the Philippines, twenty percent; the Vietnam, twenty percent.

The above point system allocations are sensitive to the unique characteristics of the disputes, that involves five claimants with a mutual aversion towards the litigation process. The points system also “recognizes” each claimant’s position, provides revenues and profits irrespective of the legal merits of claim of right. Furthermore, the point system avoids the complex issue of how to physically partition the islands and military occupation.

Joint Resource development, while not a legal obligation under the 1982 UNCLOS Convention, does furnish a reasonable solution to outstanding sovereignty disputes. A cooperative regime such as a joint resources development authority would offer a relativity quick solution and palatable compromise. Such an authority could freeze all claims for the indefinite future, ensure demilitarization of the zone, facilitate resource exploitation, and provide acceptable mechanism for dispute resolution.

Fundamental to joint resource development are the character of basis relations and the genuine willingness of claimant governments to cooperate. The validity of such Joint Resource Development depends on the political will of the government to do so. Generally good relations open the door for cooperation. The strongest reasons motivating a government to undertake a joint management arrangement, however, are the perceive sense of urgency or obligation to protect its interests in potential oil or gas deposits, combined with a desire to maintain or solidify good relations with another states. The duration of the agreement is important, as well as the reasons and procedure for its termination.