The South China Sea lies squarely in the tropics. You’ll find a few hundred reefs and atolls in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer tract of water extending from Taiwan nearly to the equator. Six governments claim all or parts of the sea known for its fisheries and undersea reserves of oil and gas. Speaking of gas, China says it turned up a valuable stash of ice. If you said, “huh,” you’re right. China, the most militarily and economically powerful among the six maritime title holders, has collected samples of what it calls combustible ice. The Chinese state-controlled news website Global Times last week described the ice-like substance a gas hydrate that contains methane. When melted it turns into natural gas – the search for which is one reason for the broader, multi-country South China Sea sovereignty dispute. Combustible ice sometimes turns up in the tundra but also sometimes in sea beds.
Although the extraction of combustible ice won’t cut into the waters claimed by other countries, it could still chill overall Sino-Southeast Asian relations that have thawed over the past year as Beijing eagerly negotiates with its neighbors, some scholars argue.
Extraction of 16,000 cubic meters of ice per day from May 8-15 took place 320 kilometers southeast of Zhuhai in Guangdong province near Hong Kong. That’s in China’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, which means not technically disputed by the further-flung rival claimants Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam or the Philippines. The news website quotes China’s land and resources minister calling the ice finding “a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution.” Ice emits less pollution than other energy sources. China plans to commercialize it by 2030.
Here’s where things get icy for other countries.
Combustible ice is tricky and expensive to extract, by all accounts. The stuff officially known as methane hydrate is usually under sea beds or inside Arctic permafrost. Reserves range from 280 trillion to 2,800 trillion cubic meters, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
China says it has mastered the extraction technique after 20 years of efforts. Other countries with South China Sea claims may get the same idea about exploring for combustible ice in waters off their coasts. They would need to hire foreign technical assistance, likely from experienced contractors in India or the United States — countries that China doesn’t want to find in the sea that it calls its own despite objections from neighbors and a world arbitration court.
“It requires the foreign partner to stick around at the risk of angering China,” says Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Involving foreign partners may even prompt China to do more in this area,” he says. “Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for ASEAN claimants to try to do anything, unless it’s possible to talk about harvesting combustible ice as a joint development initiative among the claimants, a prospect one shouldn’t rule out.” Joint development gets talked about a lot but usually doesn’t happen because governments or their people might see it as a sovereignty concession.
Another thing: The countries with competing maritime claims may resent China for exploiting the new gas source in its economic zone while complaining when others probe for fossil fuel in their own zones, says Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. China’s nine-dash line claim to 90% of the sea overlaps the zones of all four Southeast Asian nations.
“It raises an issue of hypocrisy,” Poling says. “China gets exclusive rights within 200 nautical miles of its coast but bellows and threatens when any of the neighbors do the same.” The Southeast Asian stakeholders lack capacity to look for combustible ice, he says, and “they’re far more concerned about the substantial reserves of conventional natural gas off their coasts that China might prevent them from accessing.”
By Ralph Jennings