An oil refinery in the South China Sea as seen from Seria, Brunei Darussalam. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Territorial disputes in the South China Sea will not hold back oil exploration

China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei have all staked competing claims over the 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that have yet to be tapped in the South China Seas.

Natural resources have been cited as the reason for many a territorial claim through the centuries - whether that be gold, water or oil. Tensions in the South China Sea have been steadily rising over the past few years, as successive geological surveys have revealed massive oil and gas reserves, lying beneath the waves.

No fewer than seven countries bordering the sea - China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei - all stake competing claims over the proven 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that have yet to be tapped. The US Geological Survey estimates these figures could yet be revised upwards as other areas of the region are explored.

With energy consumption rising rapidly in several of these countries, the impetus for claiming these reserves is clear. The total installed electricity generation capacity in China doubled between 2005 and 2011, whereas Vietnam currently imports 60 per cent of its oil, a figure which the government is trying to reduce by developing its own resources and producing more oil domestically.

But all that has been produced so far is deadlock. These nations do not even agree on a name for the sea. Most often called the South China Sea internationally, it is also known as the East Sea in Vietnam, the West Philippine Sea and the South Sea in China.

Tensions have risen as a result of Vietnamese protests over disruption to its exploration activities from the Chinese fishing fleet. The Philippines have also voiced concerns over the increasing presence of the Chinese in the area around Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries. With China’s ever-increasing naval power, there are fears that the disagreement could escalate into the sort of dispute seen with Japan in 2012, over the Senkaku Islands, claimed by both countries.

Christopher Hughes, Professor of International Politics and Japanese Studies at the University of Warwick called the situation “the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarised conflict”, with tensions reaching their peak when Japanese and Chinese coast guard vessels engaged and collided, plus the scrambling of fighter jets on both sides to monitor other ships in the area.

Fearful of similar escalation in the South China Sea, the ASEAN community, made up of Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei, have actively seeked to engage with China on a diplomatic level to resolve the dispute at this month’s 16th ASEAN-China Summit in Brunei. First things first, Benigno Aquino III, President of the Philippines, has diplomatically decided to refer to the region as “this sea known by many names”, but was clear in his desire to resolve the conflict, or risk damaging the region’s economic growth. “Our development as a region cannot be realised in an international environment where the rule of law does not exist,” he said, pushing for a Code of Conduct to be drawn up under the watchful eye of the UN, designed to settle each country's claim.

China, whose claim over the Sea, is by far the largest, has the most to lose from any formal international agreement, so has actively begun seeking cooperation with neighbouring states on the joint development of hydrocarbons. Chinese Premiere Li Keqiang last week visited Hanoi with the aim of boosting economic cooperation between Vietnam and China, following similar agreements worth $5 billion with Malaysia and $28 billion with Indonesia.

This follows rocky relations between Petrovietnam and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), who in 2012, called for international bids to explore the Gulf of Tonkin, an area claimed by both countries. Relations have since improved though, with the extension and expansion of a joint agreement to explore the gulf. The agreement will now be in place until 2016 and expand the area covered from 1541km2 to 4076km2.

Such agreements could be a sign of things to come, with China realising that joint development of contested resources is better than no development at all. Its recent diplomatic blitz with members of the ASEAN community could yet bear more fruit, or more oil.

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.