China's power play will up East Sea ante: analysts

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Chinese "˜hyper-nationalism' poised to aggravate East Sea tensions; analysts say Beijing cannot afford to turn back

Fishing boats from Quang Ngai Province's Ly Son Island heading out to sea on an offshore fishing trip. 

Days before Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged Vietnam to "educate" its fishermen, the Chinese had already demonstrated how well they have imbibed their state propaganda.

On May 20, a Chinese vessel rammed into a Vietnamese trawler while it was fishing in the Paracel Islands, over which both countries claim sovereignty. Vietnam lodged a protest last Monday, saying the ramming had damaged the boat and threatened the lives of 15 Vietnamese fishermen on board. One day later, Hong dismissed the accusations, saying relevant Chinese authorities had only carried out normal law enforcement activities.

With Chinese fishing boats operating as an arm of local authorities and the national government, "normal law enforcement" would mean that any action against foreign fishermen in waters claimed by China can be undertaken with impunity, analysts say. 

"Chinese propaganda has convinced Chinese fishermen that the South China Sea belongs exclusively to China," said Carl Thayer, a maritime expert with the University of New South Wales in Australia. "Chinese fishing boat captains will act aggressively because they are fueled by hyper-nationalism."

This has forced some experts to go beyond what has been assumed as the main reason for the East Sea tensions oil and natural gas. 

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are embroiled in sovereignty disputes over the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.

The waters are thought to be teeming with fish and holding vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar.

But analysts say it appears that undersea resources are not the main reason for simmering.

"The main drivers are now nationalism, particularly in China, the Philippines and Vietnam," said Sam Bateman, a maritime security researcher at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"There is now considerable evidence that there are no large reserves of oil and gas in the key disputed waters," Bateman told Vietweek.

The East Sea holds around 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas in proven and probable reserves, surpassing the untapped resources in Europe, Reuters has reported, citing the most recent report by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Oil is estimated in 1,000 barrels per day, and natural gas in billion cubic feet.

Analysts say while China has consistently made claims that are as much as seven times greater than EIA and other estimates, the EIA report offers evidence that there are no significant oil and gas reserves in the region of the Paracel (Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) archipelagos.

"Significant oil and gas reserves tend to be located at the margins of China's claims, in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of China's Guangdong Province, between Vietnam's Vung Tau and Indonesia's Natuna islands, and at the Reed Banks off the Philippine coast," said Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

A comprehensive paper released in May 2012 by two experts at the University of Wollongong in Australia sought to determine the production profile of disputed reserves and gauge their potential benefit to energy security for each country with claims in the disputed waters.

"The estimates as to the oil and gas potential of the South China Sea varies wildly and all the estimates are speculative and in my view unreliable and potentially misleading," said Clive Schofield, co-author of the paper, which has been peer reviewed and endorsed by independent experts.

"The key reason for this is that the estimates available are based, at best, on geological assessments rather than being extensively "˜ground-truthed' and backed up by industry data," Schofield said.

"This is inevitably the case because the overlapping jurisdictional claims have tended to limit surveys and largely rule out exploration activities such as drilling."

Fish stocks depleted

Analysts say seafood resources in disputed waters are also valuable. So, while there may not be oil and gas, there is still a lot of fish.

But even this comes with a caveat.

Since May 16, China has put in force its unilateral two-month-and-a-half fishing ban on waters around the Paracels, which it has occupied illegally by force since 1974 after a brief but bloody naval battle with the forces of the then US-backed Republic of Vietnam.

China said the ban, which has been in place since the late 1990s, was aimed at preserving the fish stock during the breeding season but its fishermen have been blamed for overfishing and marine pollution that has caused the depletion of fish stock in the East Sea.

To make matters worse, early this month, China sent one of its largest fishing fleets on record to the disputed Spratlys, a move analysts say that will inevitably deplete fish stocks further, affecting Southeast Asian littoral states that rely heavily on the same fisheries.

"China's action"¦ is self-destructive," Thayer said. "Chinese fishermen are largely unregulated and they often catch endangered species protected by international convention."

No turning back

Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims with reference to the so-called nine-dashed line that takes in about 80 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea on Chinese maps, a move emphatically rejected by international experts.

This vague boundary was first officially published on a map by China's Nationalist government in 1947. Consistently, since the early 1970s, all maps of China shown in state-sanctioned publications in China have shown the nine-dashed line and the Paracels and Spratlys as Chinese territory.

Most Chinese consider it a fact that the nine-dashed line delineates China's territory in the East Sea, experts say.

The East Sea conflicts began as early as in the 1990s with China's passage of a Law on Continental Shelf and Contiguous Zone. This led to the Crestone Affair in 1992 in which China granted an oil lease overlapping Vietnam's exclusive economic zone.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to which both Vietnam and China are signatories, an exclusive economic zone refers to an area of sovereignty stretching 200 nautical miles from a country's coastal baseline.

 "China claims other states are plundering Chinese energy reserves. The Chinese public believes that vast amounts of oil and gas are being taken illegally by Vietnam and the Philippines," Thayer said.

Tensions resurfaced in 2009 when China formally tabled its nine-dashed line claim with the United Nations, claiming the waters and land features within it. Since then Vietnam and the Philippines have repeatedly condemned China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the disputed waters.

But from the perspective of ordinary Chinese citizens, their government is making a completely legitimate claim.

"Generations of [Chinese] citizens have grown up with the [nine-dashed line] map engraved in their memory," said Vuving, the Hawaii-based expert.

"Now, all of a sudden, they see neighboring countries protesting what they believe is an indisputable fact. What do they think? Naturally, most would react with indignation," he said.

Facing an increasingly nationalistic domestic audience who are pushing the Chinese new leadership to stake out its claims in a wide swathe of ocean territory, coupled with China's confidence that it can successfully impose its will there, analysts say the main drivers of China's claims to the East Sea are primarily power and security, with resources coming in a distant second.

The East Sea constitutes a strategic choke point on one of the busiest sea lines of communication between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and between Northeast Asia and the rest of the world.

"Strategically speaking, whoever controls the South China Sea will control East Asia. So control of the South China Sea is a sine qua non for a dominant position in East Asia," Vuving said.

"China's rise will be incomplete if Beijing is unable to dominate the South China Sea."

The increasingly nationalistic response to its sovereignty claims has made it almost impossible for Beijing to back down, analysts say.

"There are little signs that the activities today have gone beyond the past engagement," said Sun Yun, a Washington DC-based China foreign policy expert and a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Beijing.

Elsewhere in Vietnam's neighborhood, the Philippine government has accused China of encroachment after three Chinese ships, including a naval frigate, converged just 5 nautical miles from an old transport ship that the Philippines deliberately ran aground on a reef in 1999 to mark its territory, Reuters reported. The move could be the next flash point in the East Sea, it said.

Filipino fishermen have also lamented lost livelihoods since the Chinese occupied their fishing grounds off the Scarborough Shoal in 2011 after a two-month standoff between Manila and Beijing.

Given the status quo, analysts say fishermen are increasingly getting caught in the crossfire of the territorial disputes in and around the East Sea.

Other than the boat ramming on May 20, Vietnam also reacted strongly to a Chinese ship firing flares at four Vietnamese fishing boats from Quang Ngai Province that were fishing in their traditional fishing grounds in the Paracels last March. Vietnam condemned the action as "inhumane and dangerous."

Phung Dinh Toan, deputy director of the Quang Ngai fisheries resource protection agency, said he had recorded "quite a few" other cases in which the local fishermen had been harrassed by the Chinese since early this year.

Over the years, hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen and their crews have been victimized by China's increasingly aggressive patrols around the disputed islands in the East Sea.

Tran Van Khang, captain of the fishing boat that was slammed by China on May 20, said the morale of his crew has been "extremely low" since the incident.

"We are scared, really scared of the Chinese. They have never been that aggressive," Khang, a 61-year-old veteran fisherman, told Vietweek.

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Vietnamese fishermen have been encouraged to assert Vietnam's sovereign jurisdiction in disputed waters around the Paracels. This means there will be continued incidents with Chinese authorities, who in recent years have set up a cordon and chased away Vietnamese boats.

"We are fighting a life-and-death battle, literally, for our livelihood and for national sovereignty," Khang said.

Khang and his crew have been working flat-out to repair the damaged vessel so they can get out to sea again soon.During the telephone interview, he could be heard urging his crew not to forget get the national flag.

"Fishing in our territory, our waters to make a living is very, very important," he said.

"But it is more important to do whatever it takes to protect our sovereignty there."

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