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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred