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Dividing up the South China Sea

In Thailand, neighbourhood conflicts often break out over land boundaries, so we should not be surprised that this also happens in the South China Sea, where there are many overlapping interests and vast, untapped resources.

The most high-profile territorial dispute in recent times has been between China and Vietnam, after China parked an oil rig close to the Paracel Islands, an area also claimed by Vietnam.

One possible factor behind the recent flare-up is that the South China Sea may contain larger

energy reserves than had been thought. This is of critical interest to China, which needs access to secure energy supplies to support its growth in coming decades.

China is particularly keen on natural gas, aiming to multiply its share of energy consumption from 3 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2020.

Up until fairly recently most energy exploration was in non-contentious areas close to the mainland. However, as the demand for energy grows, attention is turning to deeper waters where the richest fields are thought to lie. These happen to be the areas subject to dispute.

The actual reserves are still unknown. The US Energy Information Administration estimates 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the South China Sea, while the China National Offshore Oil Corporation estimates 17 billion of oil and 498 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Despite media coverage portraying huge, apparently insoluble tensions in the South China Sea, the problems can be resolved. The past has seen many agreements for cooperative oil and gas exploration in contested waters including among China, Vietnam and Japan.

And early this year scientists from China, Taiwan and the US, who are not normally considered to be the best of friends, joined an expedition to explore the energy reserves of the South China Sea, together with scientists from seven more countries.

Thailand certainly would like to see a peaceful solution since economic growth in our region will depend on reliable energy supplies.

Thailand will also need a big boost to its own energy supplies in the years to come as we face the twin challenges of increasing demand and dwindling output from existing gas fields.

This means that in our own backyard, the Gulf of Thailand, we will need to seek cooperation with Cambodia, as we have done in the past with Vietnam and Malaysia.

Just as boundary disputes are resolved in the village with the help of wise heads and a spirit of compromise, let's hope this will also be likewise in our regional seas so that peace and prosperity will prevail in our neighbourhood.


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