Tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea following the Obama administration’s foreign policy ‘pivot’ toward Asia late last year.There are many reasons for the pivot, but a principal motivation was to protect the freedom of navigation in the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea.The issue was discussed at the East Asia Summit in Bali on 19 November 2011, although the chairman’s statement of the proceedings is silent on the issue.

Just days after the meeting, the Philippines protested to China that three Chinese naval vessels had intruded into its waters near the Sabina Shoal in the South China Sea. The Philippines navy subsequently sent its new acquisition from the US, the Gregorio Del Pilar — a 46-year-old coast-guard cutter — to protect its interests in the area. And early in 2012, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Commission Videsh announced that it was resuming drilling in a hydrocarbon block in Vietnamese territorial waters disputed by China — while at the same time the China National Offshore Oil Corporation announced its intention to send out its first deep-water survey vessel to search for oil and gas prospects in the South China Sea.

With energy demand rising rapidly in China, Japan and South Korea — not to mention the smaller economies of Southeast Asia — the passageway through the South China Sea is of increasing global strategic importance, as energy shipments from the Middle East pass through the area. Moreover, the South China Sea itself holds gas and oil reserves of anywhere between 20-200 billion barrels of oil equivalent (in comparison, Saudi reserves are about 260 billion).There are three festering problems in the South China Sea that have become a source of international tension and threaten peaceful passage through this waterway.

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Rising tensions in the South China Sea

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