A Prisoner’s Dilemma over The South China Sea’s Resources

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Location, Location, Location

A stretch of sea encompassing an area of roughly 1,400,000 square miles, the South China Sea touches upon the borders of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Particular areas within this sea that have been disputed include the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal. In terms of the Spratly Islands, some or all of them are claimed by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Lastly, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines all claim the Scarborough Shoal. With components of each of these features claimed by more than two actors, negotiated settlements can be difficult. This is only further complicated by the resources that any successful claimant might gain access to, should their efforts at control succeed.

Sources of Value

  1. Sea lanes: The second most important sea lane in the world is through the South China Sea, it sees large proportion of annual sea trade through its waters. Valuations in 2016 placed this amount in access of $3.37 trillion.
  2. Oil: The main fuel of our modern lives, some reports estimate as much as 11 billion barrels of oil reserves. This equates to roughly over $580 billion waiting to be accessed. (October 7, 2019 crude oil prices: $52.75 per barrel)
  3. Natural Gas: Estimates have placed natural gas reserves at as much as 266 trillion cubic feet. This equates to roughly over $890 billion in natural gas deposits. (July 2019 US natural gas prices: $3.35 per thousand cubic feet)
  4. Fish: Accounting for 12% of global fishing, the fisheries in the South China Sea are reported to be on the verge of collapse due to overfishing and development projects.

Why You Should Be Concerned

With resources assessed as having economic worth in excess of $1.4 trillion up for grabs, and a greater share of the wealth of the sea lane, there is a lot of incentive for the disputing countries to stake a claim that will see them net their piece of this appealing pie. So far the dispute has resulted in few casualties, and only limited clashes between countries with claims in the dispute. There is cause for worry however. China has acted to seize parts of its claims, and has even built up artificial islands to cement its control in the region. Other countries have taken actions to secure their claims as well, such as the Philippines over the Second Thomas Shoal. The major hope is that a major conflict won’t break out for fear of the trillions in trade becoming threatened.

While World War III might be unlikely, there is a significant threat to the world that is proceeding apace, one which may be even more costly to humanity as a whole. Given the overlapping claims in the South China Sea, and how each has industries that rely on fishing to varying degrees, there is incentive to take their piece of the valuable resource before it can be taken by the others rather than to cooperate in maintaining the fisheries they rely on. Much like in the Prisoner’s dilemma, there seems to be a lack of significant trust to pursue mutually binding fishing guidelines, so each state opts to defect and continue their policies of destructive harvesting.

Further, China’s efforts building man-made islands in the South China Sea have a traumatic impact on the coral reefs in the area. Already thousands of acres have been destroyed. The loss of this biodiversity might well become irreplaceable if more is not done to reign in the actions of those disputing the South China Sea. As if this was not bad enough, loss of access to adequate fisheries will threaten the existence of a number of industries, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be at risk, and millions of people will have their food security threatened. If this scenario occurs, at the minimum we can expect significant upheaval and potential population displacement, which in turn might well spur more conflict in the region. To make a difference, effective solutions and an atmosphere of cooperation among the disputants of the South China Sea is needed, and soon.

Want to Learn More About the South China Sea?

If you are interested in learning more about the geopolitical context of South China Sea and the recent events surrounding it, there are several books I reference for my research that you might be interested in:

  1. Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea: In this book a dozen experts examine how the economic, diplomatic, and military strategies of major global actors have alternately helped find solutions and helped increased tensions in the South China Sea. Significant effort is also exerted to determine outcomes of the dispute, dependent on the strategies the great powers take.
  2. The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia: In this book, Bill Hayton brings clarity and understanding to the reader regarding the sometimes complicated history of the South China Sea. Unique of the books here, significant focus is put on the stories of individuals who have played a role in the current conflicts, such as scientists, businessmen, soldiers, diplomats and more.
  3. Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion: In this narrative examination of the South China Sea region, Humphrey Hawksley addresses numerous questions regarding the geopolitical context of the region for the future. For me, one of the most important questions was as to whether there will be a peaceful interaction between the US and China as the latter continues to expand its presence on the world stage.
  4. Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific: Robert D. Kaplan offers up an engaging critique of the geopolitical situation surronding the South China Sea, paying particular attention to the place and role of the states involved in the dispute, and the implications of the dispute for the global peace in the decades ahead. Most interesting to me was the authors engagement with the goals and motivations of each states people and leaders, with an eye towards assessing the trajectory of the dispute.

This article contains some affiliate links to books that I recommend as references to learning more about the South China Sea and the actions of countries that have interests there. If you choose to purchase these books via my affiliate links, you will help support my writing and research at no additional cost to you.

Charles writes on art, history, politics, travel, fantasy, science fiction, poetry. BA, MA in Political Science, Phd Pending. Inquires: charlesbeuck@gmail.com

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