Past and Present Resource Disputes in the South China Sea: The Case of Reed Bank

Micah S. Muscolino, Georgetown University
Military and security developments regarding the PRC (detail). Source: U.S. Department of Defense, 2012.
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In 2012, tensions flared between China and the Philippines over plans to drill for oil in the Reed Bank, a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, rekindling fears about the possibility of military conflict over the area’s energy resources. This article shows that international controversy centering on the Reed Bank’s hydrocarbon reserves initially emerged during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when the pursuit of energy resources transformed the islets into a hotly contested area. As in recent years, oil exploration by multinational corporations in conjunction with the Philippines catalyzed international disputes. Vigorous protests from China and other nations that lay claim to territories in the South China Sea prompted the Philippines to assert its own jurisdictional claims. The territorial dispute pushed claimants to the brink of military confrontation in the 1970s, yet armed conflict failed to materialize. By examining the initial round of tensions surrounding oil exploration at Reed Bank, this article situates the current international competition for the South China Sea’s energy resources in historical perspective. Analyzing past disputes and their ultimate resolution offers insights into the dynamics of present tensions, while making it possible to critically engage with arguments predicting future “resource wars” in the South China Sea.

Keywords: South China Sea, Philippines, Reed Bank, Recto Bank, oil exploration