The Indo-Pacific Region, which borders the South China Sea, contains a huge amount of energy resources . This Sea has high amount of energy reserves, which are mainly oil, gas, mineral ores and fish stocks. As per several estimates, this region has one of the biggest fishing stocks in the world.
The discovery of natural resources has created a huge gulf between the countries in the region and has also attracted countries which are outside the region. China is trying to establish its own dominance in the region by not only exploring the oil and gas reserves for their usage but also by bullying other regional players via unlawfully expanding its territory and claims over the natural resources in the region, mainly the South China Sea. This scenario is an alarming signal to the other countries who also see for themselves a share in the vast natural wealth and the resulting economic benefits this region has on offer.
With the largest population in the world and second largest economy, China has considerably large energy requirements than other countries in this region. It requires a heavy amount of energy resources, especially oil and gas to fulfil its basic requirements, for instance daily energy usages, most importantly oil, which is used in the commercial and domestic vehicles and ships. In addition, Beijing is also making a great business by not only exporting oil to the Asia Pacific countries but also to the Middle East.
The claim of sovereignty over the disputed areas in the South China Sea is only the initial stage of the game and China is considering this an important means in pursuit of its goal of exploring oil and gas.
China claims a vast amount of area in South China Sea and draws its borders accordingly to show that these are their own waters and territories. Vietnam only has sovereignty over two islands, Spratly islands and Paracel Islands, their continental shelf area and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The economic factor is important to the Vietnamese also but at the same time the security perspective also plays a major role for them. For the security of the energy resources in their mainland, the Vietnamese government has also increased their defense mechanisms. This region is also a major route of trade and the Vietnamese and Chinese tussle in this region spells trouble.
The exploration and exploitation of energy resources and the aggressive Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea is the major bone of contention between China and Vietnam. To some extent, Hanoi had tried to remain patient with the unlawful activities of Beijing, that is, construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and use of hard power, like heightened military presence and use of advanced military technology in these islands. But then Vietnam could not sit back quietly as these activities went unchecked and it reciprocated to this situation by moving forward with construction of artificial land features in the South China Sea, which they had left in the 1980s.
Vietnam’s harsh and desperate measures in the region also stems from the fact that Beijing did not follow the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the South China Sea, which clearly said that China has no historical claims on any of the islands of the South China Sea and not even on the energy rich resources which it contains. Vietnam has also shifted back and forth from hard power to soft power as it clearly knows that only military power is not enough to counter Chinese intentions in this region. This has led to a major conflict in this region as both the parties are trying to tussle for control in the resource-rich region by strengthening their presence and influence.
Many South East Asian analysts claim that Vietnam is capable of countering Chinese dominance in a practical sense. Both the parties, China and Vietnam, sharply take steps against each other in a bid to safeguard their interests in the region. On the one hand, China continues to stake claims over island territories unlawfully and on the other hand, Vietnam is focusing on securing natural resources in its part of the region for their survival. They know it very clearly that by hard power alone they cannot secure their interests. Hence, they are involving third parties from outside the region. This could go a long way in securing their interests and claims in the region but to stop a belligerent China, Vietnam would need to pursue their goals as vigorously as the Chinese by using a mix of hard and soft power.
*** Binita Verma is currently pursuing Ph.D. in the US Studies Program from the Center for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies(CCUSLAS), School of International Studies(SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) ***