Tracing the local effects of the South China Sea Dispute by Edyta Roszko

2. Jul 2012

The nineteenth century notion of the ‘sovereign state’ brought by Europeans found fertile ground in Asia as it sought a way to liberate itself from the yoke of colonialism. While nowadays Europe is inclined towards more inclusive and porous notions of sovereignty, many Asian countries (China, India and ASEAN) resist this trend by advancing procedures to demarcate and strengthen their borders, thereby posing challenges to inter-regional integration and global politics. In the context of maritime enclosures and global competition over resources, the modern Asian states not only seek to make lands recognizable through mapping but also to incorporate the sea into their geo-bodies.

One of example is the South China Sea, where the interplay between nationalistic and regional tendencies produces a new balance as China’s maritime law dominates as opposed to international law. China’s assertion of exclusive sovereignty involved the conquest or occupation of island, the enforcement of a fishing ban, the confiscation of Vietnamese and Filipino fishing vessels and detention of their crews, and the sabotaging of Vietnamese and Filipino oil explorations. Part of Vietnam’s tactic is to emphasize the status of international waters and the history of free navigation in the South China Sea, which courts the support of major players like the US, India and ASEAN. While most analysts assume that the various claims to the – mostly uninhabited – Paracels and Spratlys and the surrounding SCS are motivated by the presence of submarine mineral resources like oil and gas, the conflicts evoke strong nationalist feelings in various countries, fueled by narratives regarding the historical presence of fisheries.

Downplaying internal differences and contestations, the South China Sea dispute drags the various ASEAN members into an argument against the strongest regional claimant, China. At the same time, the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over maritime sovereignty in parts of the Gulf of Thailand shows that in the absence of a strong outside claimant like China, territorial contestations and national sentiments come to the fore in a heated debate among the ASEAN members. Perhaps at this point, it is worth mentioning another revealing example of such territorial disputes and sentiments of a new-found patriotism: the Bay of Bengal.  Here India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma enforced a fishing ban in their waters, confiscating foreign vessels and detaining their crews in order to secure the supply of marine and especially submarine mineral resources, including oil and gas. In particular, the Palk Strait with its relatively shallow sea-subsection of the Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka has emerged as a territory of increasing conflict and violence. Since the India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary agreement of 1974 and 1976, agreed upon by the governments of India and Sri Lanka, the whole area has become a heavily contested fishing territory between Tamil fishermen on both sides. For centuries, these two communities enjoyed shared fishing rights and cultivated relations through annual festivals and trade. However, with the demarcation of maritime boundaries based on the concept of national sovereignty, the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have entered into an acute conflict over the fishing grounds in the Palk Strait.

Following James Scott’s recent study on the highland areas connecting Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, we can conceive of the sea as one of the last zones of ‘non-governance.’  However, in the South China Sea or in the Bay of Bengal this concept is now being challenged due to increasing enclosure by surrounding states. The cases of the two regions are comparable examples of complex maritime disputes in which historic fishing rights are often ignored and fishermen – who inevitably become involved in border making – seem to be instrumentalized by their governments. Paradoxically, different stakeholders may use customary fishing practices as legal arguments in the international conflict, thus affecting enclosures of commons. At the same time, the resulting enclosures suppress the voices and interests of these fishing communities.

One such community is Ly Son Island, to which I had unparallel access during my doctoral field research. Ly Son is an atoll lying close to the Vietnamese mainland and about 400 km west of the Paracel Archipelago. Because of its historical association with the Paracels and Spratlys, Ly Son Island is considered a restricted border zone and an important defensive position to Vietnam. From 1974 onward, when Chinese forces overran a South-Vietnamese military station on the Paracels, China and Vietnam have confronted each other over the control of the Paracels and Spratlys, resulting in the sinking of three Vietnamese naval ships by Chinese forces in 1988. After the discovery of submarine deposits of natural oil and gas, China does not only claim the islands, but seeks to extend its sovereignty over the entire continental shelf, hoping to incorporate the South China Sea and its mineral and marine resources under its control. Ly Son Islanders directly bear the historical, geopolitical and economic consequences of the dispute. The already difficult economic situation of Ly Son Island worsened when the Chinese navy denied Ly Son fishermen the rights to use fishing grounds near the Paracels which for generations they had considered their own. Moreover, its sensitive ‘border’ location also hampered other forms of economic development, like international tourism.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese State turned its attention towards Ly Son as a valuable source of information about the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) navy, which was established by the Nguyen lords around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the Nguyen dynasty continued to carry out naval activities there. In 2001 the state issued a directive establishing a commemorative site for the two flotillas. Facing competition from China over control over the archipelagos, the Vietnamese Party-State chose to frame its claims to sovereignty not in economic terms but with reference to historical, emotive stories of Vietnamese sailors who shed their blood on the islands. At the same time, Vietnam does not seem much concerned about  Ly Son fishermen being denied free access to the fishing grounds on which they depend. Consequently, Ly Son fishermen feel abandoned by the central State, who has a stake in maintaining good diplomatic and political relations with its main trading partner and the region’s dominant military force, China.

The transformation of the political and ecological environment, livelihood and the culture of fishing communities due to the recent territoralization of the sea calls for a deeper knowledge of how local people deal with coastal and environmental damage of marine areas, which are important factors in the loss of the ecological basis for their livelihoods. This is an important question since the growing impact of global competition over energy security, overfishing and the destruction of marine resources via unsustainable forms of coastal development give rise to speculation over the global and local consequences of this process. As such, the need exists for deeper knowledge about the growing competition over marine resources and its consequences on coastal communities and local ecologies in developing countries, where small-scale fisheries are still central in providing people’s food and economic welfare.

Edyta Roszko. “From Spiritual Houses to National Shrines: Religious Traditions and Nation-Building in Vietnam,” East Asia: An International Quarterly, vol.29. no 1 March 2012, pp. 25-41.


________. “Commemoration and the State: Memory and Legitimacy in Vietnam,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol.25. no. 1 (April 2010), pp.1-28.