South China Sea: The New Battleground
South China Sea: The New Battleground

A Vietnamese fishing boat sails near an American warship in Da Nang earlier this year. Planned naval exchange activities between US and Vietnamese navies were taking place amid high tensions over conflicting claims in the South China Sea. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images )
A Vietnamese fishing boat sails near an American warship in Da Nang earlier this year. Planned naval exchange activities between US and Vietnamese navies were taking place amid high tensions over conflicting claims in the South China Sea. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images )
Earlier this year, unprecedented protests were held in Vietnam, a Communist regime that notoriously stamps out any form of dissent. The demonstrations were about China’s aggressive antics in the South China Sea.

China is claiming an exclusive economic zone covering more than half the area and has recently come into conflict with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Dr Cuong Trong Bui, president of the Queensland chapter of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, is concerned that China is “bullying” countries over the South China Sea.

“Vietnam lodged a protest when Chinese vessels on 26th of May damaged cables and equipment within Vietnam’s 370km exclusive maritime zone,” he told The Epoch Times.

“The Vietnamese Government said a similar incident again took place on 9th of June, blaming China for violating its sovereignty,” he said.

Dr Bui, a former Vietnamese refugee and now an advisor to the Queensland Government on multicultural affairs, says he is suspicious of the Vietnamese regime for allowing the recent protests.

Public protests are rare in Vietnam today, particularly against China, a communist ally. The demonstrations have the appearance of sovereignty concerns in order to appease Vietnamese people, he says.

“They [Vietnam and China] are playing games,” he said. “One day, they pretend they are fighting and another day, it is ok.”

Former refugee and now an Australia citizen Dr Cuong Trong Bui is concerned about Chinese bullying tactics in the South China Sea. (Shar Adams/The Epoch Times)
Former refugee and now an Australia citizen Dr Cuong Trong Bui is concerned about Chinese bullying tactics in the South China Sea. (Shar Adams/The Epoch Times)
Demonstrations on the issue by Vietnamese communities around the world have since been held, including in Australia.

“We have to warn people about China [and] speak up for the people living in Vietnam. They don’t have the opportunity to say as much as we can here and that is the problem,” Dr Bui said.

South China Sea

Vietnamese people are not the only ones with concerns about the South China Sea. The area is fraught with old territorial disputes and with developing economic strength in the region, the stakes are becoming higher.

Robert Kaplan, author, journalist and a member of the US Defence Department’s Defence Policy Board, believes the South China Sea is shaping up to be the forum for a new era of conflict for the 21st century.

“Europe is a landscape, East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries,” he wrote in the online forum Foreign Policy.

The South China Sea stretches thousands of kilometres from the Straits of Malacca in the south-west to the Straits of Taiwan in the north-east.

Territorial claimants include Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore Vietnam, Indonesia and China, who all vie for different sectors of the straits.

Disputed areas include the Macclesfield Bank claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines; the Paracel Islands, with claims from China, Vietnam and Taiwan; and the most southerly group of larger islands, the Spratly Islands, claimed in full by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

In 1988, more than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed by Chinese military in territorial disputes off the Spratly Islands.

Although variously named according to which country is claiming it, the waterway is more broadly known as the South China Sea as a result of 16h century European interest in it as a trade route to the riches of China.

Strategic Significance

Today, the South China Sea’s strategic and economic significance is staggering.

Accounting for 2-way trade, it is presently the busiest seaway in the world, linking north-east Asia to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Malacca.

A third of all maritime traffic and “more than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through South China Sea,” writes Mr Kaplan.

The amount of oil transported through the South China Sea, fuelling the big economies of Taiwan, Japan, China and South Korea, is more than six times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal, he writes.

“This comprises nearly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 per cent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 per cent of China’s crude-oil imports,” Mr Kaplan writes.

According to Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, 60 per cent of Australia’s trade must also traverse the South China Sea.

With the rise in demand for energy resources, historical maritime disputes have been further exacerbated by the discovery of oil and gas in the region.

According to Mr Kaplan, proven oil reserves stand at around 7 billion barrels and natural gas at 900 trillion cubic feet, but estimations of potential reserves stand at much more.
Next … Potential for Conflict


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