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  • Nationalism and Domestic Politics as Drivers of Maritime Conflict
  • Meghan Kleinsteiber (bio)

Drivers of Maritime Disputes

In her essay, “Oceans of Conflict: Determining Potential Areas of Maritime Disputes, ” Elizabeth Nyman examines five main factors that drive maritime disputes: the pursuit of nonliving resources, the pursuit of living resources, conflicting claims to sovereignty over uninhabited rocks or islands, pollution, and the future role of climate change in driving future conflicts. Nyman notes that uncertainty over sovereignty of rocks and islands is the driving force behind Japan and China’s dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, as well as conflicts between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Nyman suggests that states desire sovereignty of a region because they desire the right to resources in that region, and in doing so, she neglects a non-economic explanation for the escalation of these disputes. I argue that the fundamental drivers behind the disputes in the East and South China Seas are not potential or claimed natural resources, but rather domestic politics, rising nationalism, and irredentism.

Resource Claims

First, I contradict the claim that disputes in the East and South China Seas are purely driven by resources, because the actual quantity of resources in the seas is unknown, and resource extraction is currently too costly for regional actors. Many of the world’s fisheries resources are found in the East and South China Seas. It is well documented that the fisheries stocks in the East and South China Seas are bountiful, but rapidly depleting. On the other hand, the extent of hydrocarbon wealth in the region is uncertain. The United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the South China Sea could hold up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion [End Page 15] cubic feet of natural gas, and that the East China Sea may contain between 60 and 100 million barrels of oil. In contrast, a report published by Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) provided significantly higher estimates of 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the South China Sea, and another Chinese source claimed resources in the East China Sea to be anywhere between 70 and 160 billion barrels.1 Both the EIA and Chinese estimates include proven and probable ranges of reserves.

However, given the technological capacity of the littoral states involved, resource extraction is not economically viable at present. Thus, the amount of hydrocarbons that could feasibly be extracted from the East and South China Seas is highly debatable, calling into question the assertion that potential resources are the primary factor that has reinvigorated the maritime disputes in recent years. Even if resources are an important component in heightened activity in the East and South China Seas, conflicts over sovereignty appear to be counterproductive to gaining access to the available resources. As Nyman notes, increased aggression and uncertainty scare away private firms, and a calmer environment is more conducive to joint development.

A recent CSIS report by Gregory Poling illustrates what he calls an “area of maximum dispute,” the overlap of each country’s maximum claim assuming that all contested features are considered islands (as opposed to rocks), and are thus awarded a full exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, instead of a 12 nautical mile territorial sea.2 Poling argues that, as all parties are bound by their UNCLOS obligations, they should accept this area as being in dispute. By clearly defining the area of dispute, the potential for joint exploitation and the development of resources becomes much greater. In fact, joint development projects have already led to the extraction of resources in parts of both the East and South China Seas. In 2009, Brunei and Malaysia established a “Commercial Arrangement Area” for the joint development and exploitation of petroleum resources off of Borneo after resolving a contested maritime area between the two countries.3

Although questions of resource ownership have existed for decades, conflict has only been sporadic. Not long ago, the disputes in the East and South China Sea had been relatively dormant...


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pp. 15-19
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