Is it worth fighting over what lies under South China Sea?: The Nation

Activists holding placards protesting in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila on Feb 10, 2018.
Activists holding placards protesting in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila on Feb 10, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial, the paper says that as China and the Philippines mull joint mineral exploration, the true nature of the territorial conflict emerges.

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Perhaps China and the Philippines are taking the right steps to ease tension in the contentious South China Sea, announcing last week they were considering joint surveys for valuable underwater resources.

Beijing has long been at the loggerheads with several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), including the Philippines and Vietnam, over disputed islets in the sea.

The conflict has led to immense tension and security risks in the region as China - and to a far lesser extent some Asean countries - develop artificial islands that could conceivable be used as military launch sites.

Attempts to settle the disputes have produced no tangible results, since all the countries involved reserve their right to sovereign territory, placing their own national interests above regional stability.

Since 2013, there have been at least 38 reported small-scale incidents between vessels under the flags of claimant states.

In November 2002 Beijing and Asean signed a non-binding Declaration of Conduct that is supposed to regulate behaviour in the South China Sea.

The document has never been fully enforced and has done nothing to alleviate tension, let alone settle the conflict.

Asean and China are now negotiating a Code of Conduct, which is intended to be legally binding.

A framework for the code was adopted last year (2017) and the task of drafting a document acceptable to all has begun.

Few people in our region, even among the Asean officials working on it, expect it to do much good.

The most cynical call it a waste of time.

The optimists feel they might achieve an enforceable agreement after all.

With multilateral efforts still not showing tangible results, China continues to insist it is ready to negotiate terms with every other territorial claimant individually, which it believes will ultimately settle the overall dispute.

Beijing wishes to dispense with the multilateral approach. Neither is it about to comply with a July 2016 verdict by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration that the Philippines, not China, had sovereign rights to the reefs and atolls over which Beijing had already raised its flag.

The ruling in favour of the Philippines proved to be anything but a triumph. Manila quickly decided it did not want the verdict to damage its relations with Beijing.

When he became president, Rodrigo Duterte gave priority to cooperating with China.

Duterte made sure the issue didn't come to the Asean table last year while his country was chairing the bloc.

And now, Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano has said his country and China were discussing joint mineral exploration in the South China Sea.

Major international sea-lanes cross the South China Sea and its fishery stocks remain relatively abundant.

The World Bank says there are also at least seven billion barrels of petroleum and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas below.

No one can get at the resources, though, while they're still arguing about what lies above.

We look forward to seeing what China and the Philippines discover on the sea floor. Perhaps, in the end, they will decide that it's not enough to be worth fighting over.

The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.