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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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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