Conflict in the South China Sea has frequently been framed as driven in large part by a desire from China and other claimants to gain access to much-needed hydrocarbon reserves. With the South China Sea having been dubbed by some China observers as a second Persian Gulf, and the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) estimating that the sea contains some 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, the prevalence of a resource conflict narrative is not surprising.
Obscured by this narrative however, is the way in which China’s claim to the South China Sea is profoundly shaped by history.
Debunking the resource narrative
Although it is impossible to confidently predict the hydrocarbon potential of the South China Sea, given that disputes have prevented the necessary comprehensive surveys and explorations from taking place, CNOOC’s estimates have been treated with a high degree of scepticism from industry insiders. Bill Hayton, a leading expert and author on the South China Sea dispute, recalls discussions he had with several members of the Southeast Asia Petroleum Exploration Society, who were “convinced that the disputed areas of the South China Sea actually contain relatively little oil and gas”.
This is supported by the National Bureau of Asian Research, which estimates that the recoverable reserves in the contested zones of the South China Sea are between 1.6–6 billion barrels. For context, China consumes about 3 billion barrels of oil each year. Therefore, hydrocarbons in disputed areas would only have the potential to marginally reduce China’s import reliance and thus contribute little to energy security.
It is difficult to reconcile that Beijing would be willing to risk antagonising its Asia-Pacific neighbours and the United States all for the purpose of securing rights to explore for speculative hydrocarbon reserves that will only partially contribute to China’s energy security.
This naturally raises the question: if it isn’t access to hydrocarbon reserves, then what is behind China’s expansive nine-dash line claim? For Beijing, there is strategic importance to controlling the South China Sea. Military installations on its islands add an extra tooth to the Chinese military and will enhance sustained air and sea patrols of the area. The sea also has the potential to act as a geographical buffer zone to defend against other major maritime powers. Nevertheless, in many respects the strategic value of the South China Sea is also overstated.
Its rocks, low-tide elevations, and occasional islands are far enough off the mainland that a lack of control does not appear to directly threaten China’s security.
This is particularly the case when it comes to its southernmost claim of James Shoal, which lies thousands of kilometres from China’s mainland, and tens of metres below water. Is this all worth the international backlash that Beijing has received?
Motivated by history
Widely overlooked within Western analysis is the degree to which China’s all-encapsulating and unyielding claim to the South China Sea is driven by the nation's still vivid memory of its century of humiliation, and how this has bred a desire to restore national boundaries.
The century of humiliation refers to the period spanning from the First Opium War to the establishment of the PRC in 1949 whereby according to the official Chinese discourse, the country went from being at the centre of the world to the “Sick Man of East Asia”, with sovereignty lost, territory dismembered and the Chinese people humiliated as a result of Western and Japanese imperialist aggressions. Despite being generations removed from the century and having grown up in a largely prosperous and powerful China, there remains a deep-seated emotional attachment to this period, driven in part by the CCP’s patriotic education, designed to ensure its citizens “never forget national humiliation”.
With the century of humiliation etched into the minds of the Chinese people, matters of territorial sovereignty take on additional meaning. For China, ‘reclaiming’ control of not just the South China Sea, but also Hong Kong and Taiwan is about bringing back into the fold the sacred motherland that had been lost by China during times of weakness.
Beijing has already secured its lost territories on the continent. It regained control of Tibet in 1950 and Hong Kong in 1997.
Attention now turns to restore sovereignty along its maritime border, which includes the South and East China Seas, and Taiwan. Xi Jinping’s recent remark that “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled”, testifies to the powerful influence of this history and historical memory over Beijing’s ambitions. To depict the South China Sea as principally a resource conflict is to lose sight of the complex and multifaceted drivers of Beijing’s ambitions and behaviour. Jack Fairweather is a Master of International Relations graduate from the University of Western Australia. His dissertation explores how China's century of humiliation shapes its behaviour and ambitions within the South China Sea.