Nobody is certain how much oil and gas is under the South China Sea, exactly, but the shoreline states are competing with increasing rancour to assert their national claims to it. Resolving this complicated multiparty dispute peacefully and fairly would be in the interests of all, but unfortunately there is no guarantee of that result.
Around the world, recent advances in undersea exploration and oil extraction have led to major new finds. For that reason many aquatic boundary disputes have taken on new significance. In the Arctic, the eastern Mediterranean and the East China Sea, to name a few others, disagreements once almost moribund have become hot issues. There is now justifiable concern that without careful mediation or new agreements, in these and other places, resource disputes could precede military conflict.
The South China Sea is perhaps the most complicated case, involving overlapping claims from China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. China claims almost all of the 3.5 million square kilometre sea, which is traversed annually by much of the world's merchant fleet. National rivalries and resentments old and new make the South China Sea squabble more challenging for diplomats. Military incidents and stand-offs have not been rare in recent decades, especially as China has unilaterally asserted de facto control in some areas.
In July, at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (which does not include China) only Cambodia blocked adopting a closing statement critical of China; this month China announced $500 million (Dh1.8 billion) in new grants and soft loans for Cambodia.
In 2002, China and Asean agreed to a non-binding "declaration of conduct" for behaviour on disputed waters. Asean is pressing for a more substantive, binding "code of conduct" but China has little incentive to have its hands tied. US support for a new code, voiced again this month by the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has not increased China's interest. China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, spoke at the weekend of "direct negotiation". But he also reasserted Chinese sovereignty.
With global maritime disputes popping up with increased frequency, the international community must re-commit to frameworks for establishing sea boundaries and handling disputes. Parties to the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea must ratify it, something the United States, despite chiding China for its actions, has not done. Moreover, nations that have ratified - including China - must adhere to its principles or face sanction. Dispute-settlement processes must be based on international law, not on the rule of the strongest.