Shifting Winds in the South China Sea

Floating oil barrier in the South China Sea

Floating oil barrier in the South China Sea

The South China Sea, although far from tranquil, has yet to revert to the volatility and violence witnessed in the late 1980s. However, current efforts to maintain stability and implement confidence-building measures could soon be overtaken by environmental changes in the region.

As global warming takes its toll on the South China Sea (SCS), it has begun to redefine the very nature and physical characteristics of the region. These transformations have the potential to further escalate the already heightened competition among states, increasing the likelihood of conflict. As noted by Will Rogers in a report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), climate change could indeed “act as an accelerant to destabilization.”

A Bevy of Disputes

The waters, islands, and resources of the SCS have been hotly contested among the littoral states of Southeast Asia in recent decades. Overlapping claims to maritime jurisdictions, Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZs), and various islands have been further complicated by rising nationalism in the region. Recent and ongoing discoveries of significant natural resources — including fish stocks, minerals, natural gas, and oil reserves — have only reinforced territorial claims and buttressed hard-line positions. China, Vietnam, and Taiwan all lay claim to the entirety of the SCS, while the Philippines claims a significant portion as well. In addition to contradicting one another, these claims also tend to overlap with the EEZs of other countries in the region.

Other quarrels abound. Vietnam and China have yet to resolve an ongoing bilateral dispute over their competing territorial claims to the Paracel Islands, though China has maintained effective control of the islands since 1974. Meanwhile the Spratly Islands are engulfed in a multilateral dispute among China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia, all of whom maintain overlapping claims to various features of the islands.

Some progress has been made establishing mechanisms to at least manage the potential outbreak of conflict, such as the 2002 Declaration of Conduct. Other confidence-building measures have met with reasonable success, though these have also been unable to address the underlying causes of the disputes.

Environmental vicissitudes could potentially negate what progress has been achieved thus far. In his CNAS report, Rogers strives to evaluate how concerns over global warming — and especially its effects on resource development — affect the foreign policies of SCS states. This specifically applies to fish stocks, the growing demand for alternative forms of energy, and the recent influx of droughts in the region.

Shifting Seas, Rising Tides

As CNAS scholar M. Taylor Fravel notes, SCS countries have in part sought to assert their territorial claims through commercial fishing — or, in the case of China, by challenging the commercial activities of other states. This has already led to a number of confrontations between countries, a worrisome development given the rising naval capabilities in the region. For example, in 2010, diplomatic relations between China and Japan were temporarily suspended after a Chinese fishing vessel rammed a Japanese patrol boat.

The effects of global warming may further complicate this situation. As sea temperatures in the SCS continue to rise, large quantities of fish will migrate north into even more heavily disputed waters. As fishermen are forced to follow suit, the probability of future confrontations will increase, raising the likelihood of a more serious conflict.

Moreover, the level of fishing required to maintain present per capita consumption would need to increase 25 percent by 2030. This will lead to higher levels of fishing in an increasingly smaller and more volatile segment of the SCS. The fact that present-day fishing, which is more dispersed and less abundant, has already led to near outbreaks of conflict does not bode well for the future.

Droughts and water contamination have also become a growing problem in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, concerted development efforts have led to increased pollution and a constrained freshwater supply. These concerns are exacerbated by rising sea levels and the corresponding increase in sodium deposits on the mainland, which is detrimental to agriculture. With Vietnam’s development efforts centered partially on increased agricultural exports, the country cannot afford such setbacks.

Meanwhile, China’s hydroelectric power output was set to decline by 30-40 percent by the end of 2011 due to increased droughts. Accordingly, China is now seeking to double the number of its hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River, aiming to construct four new dams by 2020. China is pressing on in spite of protests from countries downstream that rely heavily on water from the Mekong for agriculture, especially Vietnam and Thailand. With Vietnam already struggling to maintain adequate levels of clean water, future cutbacks could be devastating. China’s disregard for the needs of other countries with respect to the Mekong River does not bode well for its behavior in the SCS.

Alternative Forms of Energy

As evidenced by China’s intensified development of hydroelectric power, concerns over climate change have led to increased investment in alternative forms of energy in the region. Although greener for the environment, this poses distinct geopolitical challenges.

Not least is the threat of nuclear proliferation in the region as countries seek to limit their dependence on oil. Vietnam plans to harness nearly 1,000 Megawatts (MWs) of nuclear power by 2020, 4,000 MWs by 2025, and 10,000 MWs by 2030. Indonesia and Thailand are set to achieve similar goals by 2020. This will inevitably foster fears over the possible military applications of nuclear programs, especially given the already hostile environment and intense competition in the region. Although the IAEA and a regional non-proliferation regime might help reduce tensions, nuclear reactors may further complicate an already complicated environment.

The countries of the region have considerable reason to reduce their dependence on oil. Oil exploitation in the SCS is both expensive and politically risky (if not impossible), and oil imported from the increasingly unstable Middle East must pass through the narrow and vulnerable straits of Malacca. However, all nations in the region will continue to actively pursue oil reserves in the sea, both for export and domestic consumption, even if demand is reduced. Vietnam, for example, could see oil exports as a way to offset its faltering agricultural sector. Moreover, as economies in the region continue to grow, so too will the demand for energy.

New investments in alternative energy will also lead to increased demand for the minerals associated with such technology, which can be found in abundance in the SCS. States developing these technologies will be driven to compete for these resources. Consequently, energy competition will be driven not merely by oil and natural gas, but also by rising demand for alternative energy.

Accommodating a New Actor

Still, all is not lost for the SCS. If states in the region approach the problem cooperatively, tensions may yet be defused by joint ventures in resource development.

However, with the emergence of global warming as a predominant non-state actor, the world is beginning to witness the very real intersection of climate change and geopolitics. As transformations in the environment continue to reshape the distribution of natural resources and states are forced to seek out new ones, resource competition will arise like never before.

Derek Bolton is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.