The hydrocarbon potential of the South China Sea (SCS) has become a source of tension between the littoral states of the region and, to a certain extent, a number of outside actors. However, the SCS’s significance to global oil and gas supplies is over-hyped. Instead, it is the region’s fisheries rather than fossil fuels that have the potential to ignite a regional conflict.
Fish not fuel
Put simply, speculation that the SCS constitutes a ‘second Persian Gulf’ lacks substance. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the region’s offshore energy resources – at just over 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – are comparable to European supplies. Contrary to popular belief, most of SCS’s oil and gas resources are actually located in non-disputed territory, closer to the shores of coastal states. Factors such as technological challenges, inadequate seismic studies, plus huge costs and political risks also place serious limits on deep-water drilling farther into the SCS.
But while the value of oil and gas resources in the SCS remains the subject of debate, the potential value of its fishery and aquaculture resources is not in doubt. Currently, the South China Sea accounts for one-tenth of the world’s global fisheries catch, and plays host to a multi-billion dollar fishing industry. Fish protein accounts for more than 22% of the average Asian diet and growing incomes across Asia will inevitably raise demand.
Initially, fishing across much of the South China Sea was not even a matter of geopolitical concern. For decades, fishermen were oblivious to maritime boundaries and international maritime laws, with littoral states often turning a blind eye to their activities. This has changed, however, in recent years. Dwindling fisheries around coastal areas and long range commercial fishing have pushed the fishing frontier farther into the disputed waters of the SCS. As a result, fishing has now become a politically-sensitive and emotionally-charged national security issue for claimant countries.