--Clyde Russell is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed
are his own.--
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, May 29 One of the lessons
from recent history is that intractable disputes are rarely
solved as long as one or more of the parties believe they can
This appears to be the case with the increasingly
confrontational situation between China and its neighbours over
the South China Sea, with all sides still pressing claims
unacceptable to each other.
The latest flashpoint is the Chinese decision to position an
oil drilling rig in the South China Sea in waters claimed by
both China and Vietnam.
Vietnam claimed one it its fishing boats, operating near the
rig, was sunk by Chinese craft on May 26, prompting Beijing to
say it capsized after "harassing" and colliding with a Chinese
And it's not just China and Vietnam, with the Philippines,
Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claiming parts of the South
China Sea, while rejecting China's assertion that 90 percent of
the waters belong to it.
China is also engaged in a dispute with Japan over small
islands that lie between them in the East China Sea, with
Chinese fighter jets flying in close proximity to a Japanese
surveillance aircraft in the latest ratcheting up of tensions.
In trying to understand the dispute, it's always best to ask
what's at stake.
On an economic level it's believed the South China Sea is
rich in oil and gas deposits, with the U.S. Energy Information
Agency estimating 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion
cubic feet of gas in proved and probable reserves.
For China, developing major oil and gas fields under its
sovereign control has obvious appeal, but both Vietnam and the
Philippines are also hungry for energy resources.
On the political side it appears that China is becoming more
assertive, taking the view that its status as Asia's largest
economy means it should take more of a leading role in the
Beijing is also investing heavily in boosting its military
capabilities to give muscle to a more robust approach, and also
to counter the influence of the United States, which counts
Japan, the Philippines and Australia as firm allies in the
For the smaller countries of Southeast Asia there appears to
be a determination to stand up to what they see as Chinese
bullying, using the tactic learned by children in playgrounds
across the world that unless you stand up to the bully, he will
continue his bad behaviour.
But this isn't a schoolyard and the legitimate fear is that
the situation can move quickly from sinking fishing boats to
armed skirmishes and ultimately all out conflict.
The main problem is that the countries involved haven't yet
worked out that none of them can win.
While China would almost certainly win a military conflict,
assuming no U.S. involvement, it would lose politically and
economically by becoming a pariah among its East Asian
neighbours, and probably with major trading partners such as the
Likewise, Vietnam, the Philippines and the others have to
recognise the reality of a powerful China and how it's better to
build a working relationship with Beijing that allows for
economic development without domination.
The South China Sea dispute doesn't need to deteriorate into
conflict, but it will take leadership and compromise by all
parties, something that seems unlikely currently.
The Philippines is trying its luck by seeking arbitration at
the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),
seeking recognition of its right to exploit resources within a
200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The convention allows countries a 12-mile zone of control
with a claim to 200 miles to exploit resources.
The problem in the South China Sea is that several countries
seek these rights from disputed small islands and reefs,
creating a multitude of overlapping claims.
Even if Manila is successful at the UNCLOS, the value of any
ruling is doubtful given the lack of any enforcement mechanism.
It seems to me that the best solution would be for the all
the involved parties to sit down and work out a structure for
This could take the form of a transnational corporation with
weighted shareholding that would be granted exclusive rights to
exploit the resources, with the output and profits being shared.
Or a multinational agency could be set up to coordinate
developments and provide a mutually-agreed dispute resolution
But these sorts of steps first require a recognition that
nobody is going to win outright.
If you look at some other long-running disputes since the
end of World War Two, a clear pattern emerges.
As long as one side believes in total victory, the conflict
drags on. The Israeli-Palestinian situation and Colombia's
low-intensity but 50-year-old civil war are examples of this.
However, the resolution of decades of conflict in Northern
Ireland and South Africa are examples of leaders from all sides
coming to the conclusion that victory is unachievable and
compromise is ultimately better.
But the cautionary lesson from those conflicts is that
things often have to deteriorate to near the point of no return
before true leadership emerges.
This is the real risk for the South China Sea and its vast
reserves of oil and gas.
In trying to gain the prize for themselves, the countries
involved will end up with nothing more than a costly and
Perhaps they should refer to the Art of War, the renowned
text by Chinese general Sun Tzu, in which he said: "There is no
instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare".
(Editing by Joseph Radford)