South China Sea Watch No. 3

South China Sea Watch No. 3

What you need to know

An overview of key developments in the South China Sea this week.

Indonesia this week announced plans to develop the Natuna Islands into a tourist destination. To that end, the tourism minister said he plans to speed up development of Natuna’s infrastructure, the Jakarta Globe reported.

Simultaneously, the Indonesian Navy announced it will build a naval base on Natuna to maintain Indonesian sovereignty, the Global Indonesian Voices says.

Although Indonesia’s sovereignty over the islands is not disputed, its exclusive economic zone overlaps with China’s nine-dash line. An Indonesian warship and Chinese fishermen were involved in a skirmish on June 20 in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, which prompted a visit by President Joko Widodo’s to Natuna on June 23.

On June 27, the state-run People’s Daily said China is fully capable of removing a Philippines military base on a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, but is exercising “high restraint." Its commentary comes before an imminent ruling in the Court of Permanent Arbitration on territorial disputes between China and Philippines. The Philippines Navy deliberately grounded a ship on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, posting a dozen military personnel on the ship. China has repeatedly called for the ship to be removed. In 2014, the Chinese coast guard blocked access to Filipino supply ships, forcing the Philippines to airdrop provisions.

The China Geological Survey found a new methane hydrates resource — a potential energy source — in the South China Sea in the western part of the Pearl River mouth basin, the SCMP reported.

In a survey conducted three years ago in the eastern part of the basin, China confirmed the presence of the hydrates. More than 100 to 150 billion cubic meters of gas was estimated to be in the region.

The latest survey found a belt of 350 square kilometers in the western part of the basin below the sea surface. The government did not give an estimate on how much gas may be in the belt, however. Methane hydrates, are ice crystals with gas locked inside. It is an emerging alternative energy source due to its high energy density, with one cubic meter of ice containing about 164 cubic meters of gas. It is also cleaner than other fossil fuels as it has less pollutants.

Many observers claim the South China Sea dispute is partially fueled by the claimants’ desires for natural resource in the region, among them fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s defense minister called for ASEAN to play a part in resolving the South China Sea dispute, Kyodo reported.

“The Chinese would prefer individual nations, claimant states, to settle their claims bilaterally, and they have said openly and in that respect for ASEAN to stay out of it,” the defense minister Ng Eng Hen said. “But for ASEAN and other countries, there is no ignoring that fact that the South China Sea is an international waterway.”

China has continuously pushed for claimants to solve disputes through bilateral negotiations.

An ASEAN attempt to criticize land reclamation activities in the South China Sea failed earlier in June, as some member states retracted their support for the joint statement. China likely pressured the more financially dependent member states to withdraw their support, revealing disunity in ASEAN. Six of the ten ASEAN members are not claimants in the dispute, including Singapore.