April 25, 2012
Nationalism on the High Seas Tensions have been on the rise in the South China Sea since the colonial powers of Europe were claiming that territory as part of their massive colonial empires. Two points in the South China Sea that soak up a lot of attention from the states looking to secure maritime boundaries in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. Here you can see the Southeast Asian powers in the South China Sea competing hotly for territory. Those powers are China, Vietnam and the Philippines amongst others. These powers have stated their rights as being historically and legally spelled out. However, what must be analyzed are the motivations behind their pursuit of territory. The first two motivations are obvious to anyone that reads the daily world news. Economic as well as security has driven this battle for control of the South China Sea. A lesser noted issue that perhaps lies at the core of the inability for states to compromise is identity politics or nationalism. China, Vietnam and the Philippines in part base their respective claims to the South China Sea on “historical fishing use” (Rosenberg). This tradition supports over 500 million people living along the coast of the South China Sea (Rosenberg). While this is not necessarily a legal argument it is important to realize that each state has a differing level of need for this territory. China claims all of the South China Sea, and being the regional hegemon they have the power to enforce that claim. The Philipines and Vietnam have claimed smaller portions of the sea. This reflects their lesser need for resources due to relative size of their economies and population as well as their ability to patrol and maintain their claims.
Upon closer examination there are multiple economic reasons to want territory in the South China Sea. Southeast Asia is a developing region with relatively high populations. It takes a lot of natural resources to fuel that growth and development. Natural resources such as fisheries and now recently discovered natural gas and petroleum are the prizes for whoever controls the South China Sea (LaFond). So far the Chinese have been asserting themselves as the dominant power by laying claim to all of the South China Sea and protecting it with the strength of their naval forces. Vietnam and the Philippines have done their best to hold valuable points where resources are located under their control in places like the Spratly Islands (Yorac 50) and the Paracel Islands (CIA.gov).
Discoveries of natural gas and petroleum deposits have spurred all sides forward in pursuing claims in the South China Sea. China as a robust developing nation needs to pursue these natural resources in order to continue growing at such an accelerated rate. Competition with the rest of the developing world for natural resources has pushed Southeast Asia into a delicate position. States can either “push for [their] “rights” and alienate [their] neighbors, or find a cooperative path forward” (McHale 2). Both Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands have potentially large natural gas and petroleum reserves. The smaller powers of Vietnam and the Philippines have planted their flags there and are contesting the Chinese claim. They do not have the strength to claim the whole South China Sea like the Chinese so they will merely dig their claws into the valuable parts of the South China Sea.
Another economic issue at hand is that the South China Sea is a major fishing area chock full of tuna, mackerel, croaker, anchovy, shrimp and shellfish (LaFond). China’s burdensome population requires a lot of food to satisfy its needs. This fishery in the South China Sea provides food for nearly 500 million people that live along its coasts (Rosenberg). Food resources are certainly critical to the growth of development of nations. Southeast Asia’s interest in the fisheries