Geopolitik Energi

April 12, 2007


Background to the Dispute

The South China Sea is home to a number of territorial disputes, both bilateral and multilateral. Foremost among these is the Spratly Islands dispute. Located in the southern part of the South China Sea, the Spratly archipelago is composed of approximately 170 geographical features of which only 36 can technically be called islands (or rocks) because they are naturally above water at high tide.45 Six governments make territorial claims in the Spratlys. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam lay claim to virtually all the geographical features on the grounds of discovery, history, and occupation. The Philippines and Malaysia claim parts of the group on the basis of proximity and the continental shelf principle. Brunei claims only one island, also using the continental shelf principle. However, none of the claims are very substantive, and it is unlikely that any of the disputants would take their claims to the ICJ. Instead, each of the claimants, except for Brunei, has sought to consolidate its claims by occupying geographical features, building structures, and stationing military personnel on them. The Spratlys have been the scene of one major military clash (between China and Vietnam in 1988, when over 70 Vietnamese naval personnel were killed), and scores of minor incidents between the various disputants.

The Spratlys have minimal intrinsic value, but sovereignty is contested for two other reasons. First, the seabed below the Spratlys is reputed to be rich in oil, gas, and various mineral resources. Estimates concerning potential oil and gas reserves vary considerably, from a low of 1-2 billion barrels to a high of 225 billion barrels. Because of tensions in the area, energy companies have been prevented from conducting comprehensive surveys in the Spratlys, leaving all estimates highly uncertain. However, the perception, based on the presence of productive oil and gas fields in the littoral areas of the South China Sea, is that the Spratlys sit atop lucrative hydrocarbon deposits. Sovereignty is also contested because the Spratlys occupy an important strategic location, close to vital SLOCs that link the Pacific and Indian Oceans. More than a quarter of the world’s trade traverses through these SLOCs, including 70 percent of Japan’s energy needs and 65 percent of China’s.

During the early 1990s the Spratlys emerged as a source of serious interstate tension, primarily because China, freed from the “threat from the north” posed by the Soviet Union, moved to expand its presence in the area. China formally asserted its sovereignty claims in the Spratlys in 1992 (claiming practically the entire South China Sea), prompting ASEAN – whose membership includes four of the disputants – to issue a Declaration on the South China Sea which urged all claimants to resolve the issue peacefully.46 The year 1995 marked a turning point in the dispute, when Chinese-built structures were discovered on Mischief Reef, a small atoll located 135 nm from Palawan Island and well within the Philippines’ claimed 200 nm EEZ. China’s occupation of Mischief Reef sparked a crisis between Beijing and Manila. The Philippines sought, and received, a united stand from its ASEAN partners in the form of a statement expressing “serious concern” at the developments. In November 1998, China upgraded its structures on Mischief Reef into a permanent two-storey building complete with gun emplacements and a helicopter landing-pad.47 This time, however, bickering among the ASEAN states caused by the socio-economic fallout from the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis prevented the organization from presenting a united front.

In the wake of the Mischief Reef Incident, the ASEAN states attempted to ease tensions with the PRC in the South China Sea through the implementation of confidence-building measures (CBMs). One of the first CBMs was a code of conduct between the Philippines and China, signed in August 1995. A few months later, the Philippines and Vietnam signed a similar agreement. These codes enjoyed mixed success, to say the least, and failed to prevent a number of tense stand-offs between the naval forces of the Philippines and China in the second half of the 1990s, and, as mentioned earlier, the upgrading of China’s structures on Mischief Reef in 1998. Nevertheless, in 1996 ASEAN resolved to formulate a regional code of conduct for the South China Sea, which it hoped the PRC would accede to. Negotiations between ASEAN and China dragged on for several years, hindered by Beijing’s objections to some of the proposed code’s organizing principles and its geographical scope (for instance, China did not want the code to include the Paracels, a group of islands in the northern part of the South China Sea where China had dislodged South Vietnamese forces in 1974 – however, Vietnam still claims sovereignty of the Paracels and wanted the group included in the code). Finally, on 4 November 2002, ASEAN and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (known as the DoC).48


  1. Bung,

    Bagus euy blognya…
    Kebetulan saya juga tertarik dengan isu-isu hubungan internasional dan internasional politik.
    Coba dong, ulas teori politik internasional punya Kenneth Waltz

    Comment by sholi — August 31, 2007 @ 10:22 am | Reply

  2. bagus…tpi bahasa inggrisnya itu loh,, pegel bacanya!!

    Comment by indah — April 16, 2008 @ 6:08 am | Reply

  3. fuck bgt malaysia

    Comment by wahyi — March 19, 2009 @ 8:05 am | Reply

  4. Outstanding article!! Will come back soon.

    Comment by DescuemDerb — May 20, 2009 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  5. Hancurkan malaysia, fuck jöngos britis.

    Comment by Merah putih — June 4, 2009 @ 5:18 am | Reply

  6. Sdh taon 2009, Malay’sin’ masih aj nyolek2 Ambalat,Ooi..INA tegaz dong… Gayang Malaysia…:-(

    Comment by Nieki — June 4, 2009 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  7. malaysialan anjiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinggnnngggg

    Comment by cata — June 13, 2009 @ 7:58 am | Reply

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