Over the last few years, the unprecedented level of economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region has led to a pro-active energy policy-making by the countries in this region. The consumption rate of natural resources continues to increase since the last decade, which even led to the sky-rocketing demands for energy resources. The natural oil and gas resources in the South China Sea have attracted many countries in this region looking to meet their domestic consumption demands. They started indulging in competition across the borders for the deposits of fossil fuels, especially oil resources. This competition for energy security in South China Sea seems to be heading towards future energy conflicts in the region.
The resource rich region of the Indo-Pacific is attracting economic and strategic interests from all the major players of the world. The economic dimension, along with the energy dimension, has led to all the claimants of this region and other big players longing to explore the region and extract tremendous economic benefits that the region offers.
Chinese Dominance in the Region
China is playing a dominant role by extracting a huge amount of gas and oil resources in the South China Sea.
China, with its offensive nature, tries to prohibit the other countries from having any influence over the resource rich region of the South China Sea. This region has already been in focus since last few years due to increasing amount of discovered and undiscovered natural resources, which many claimant countries want to secure for their domestic consumption. Despite the judgment of July 12, 2016 by Permanent Court of Arbitration, which clearly stated that the Chinese Government has no such historical territorial authority in the South China Sea, it was completely rejected by Beijing. It started reasserting its dominance in the region by increasing and strengthening its military presence with a dual motive: firstly, to forcibly expand its presence in the disputed waters and secondly, unlawfully extracting large number of natural resources from this region.
In economic terms, China is exporting natural resources from Central Asia to the Middle East and also up to Europe, which is boosting its economy in a massive way and expanding its market at a rapid pace, which, in turn, provides opportunity to China to strengthen and expand its military presence in the South China Sea.
Response of the Regional Organisations
What is happening in this region is also impacting the political and social relations between the countries in this region. The exploration of natural resources, hydrocarbons, etc. is indeed helping the countries to satisfy their domestic consumption demands and also boosts their economies, but it has also created rifts and disagreements among these countries as the territorial claims are crossing the thin line of mutual understanding between them and it is threatening the sovereignty of the countries in the region.
All the major regional organizations have already warned the Chinese government to check their territorial claims in the South China Sea and obey the rules of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles of each claimants in the region, which is established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
At the same time, all the concerned countries bordering the South China Sea are also raising their respective voices in this arena of energy warfare, which is also a responsibility of the regional organizations to handle this issue with urgency.
A big question arises here that,“Does the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) possesses the efficient power to compete with China in the field of extraction of energy resources? If yes, then why is it delaying taking stringent actions against Beijing, which is ruthless in its extraction of the natural resources and effecting the biodiversity of the region. It is not a race for capturing more energy and indulge in war, but to protect and preserve the environment and the energy resources for today and the future consumption.
Is China the only major player in the region?
As the resource rich South China Sea is benefiting China in numerous ways, the question in front of the major global players remains: “Is China the only major player in the Indo Pacific region or should there be some kind of major engagement of the US in this region?”
The United States should also engage in this region to at least limit the hegemony of China, which is acting like a despot in the region and causing problems for the US allies. The US, in last few years, has shown its concern by directing more focus towards the freedom of navigation, international norms and creating a safe environment in the region. With this policy in hand, US should limit the expansionist policy of China and also keep the energy resources of South China Sea in its proper perspective.
*** 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). Her Ph.D. theme broadly deals with “The US and Russian perspective and policy towards the Arctic Region” in the US. She recently submitted her M.Phil. dissertation on “US Policy and Perspectives towards Arctic”. She did her M.A. in International Relations in 2015 from SIS, JNU ***