Showdown in the South China Sea Bangkok Networking Event Thailand

At a glance, the South China Sea appears to be a vast abyss scattered with empty, undeveloped islands. But appearances are deceiving: the region is a highly coveted shipping route that’s blessed with enough untapped oil to rival reserves in Saudi Arabia. A dispute over the sea’s rightful owner has stoked conflict between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and others – along with fears that these disagreements will be settled with lethal force.

In recent years, this largely empty sea has emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s most contested territories.

The conflict has enflamed patriotic passions on all sides and drawn rival navies into tense standoffs. China claims almost all of the sea. A tiny island claimed by Vietnam is now home to China’s newest prefecture-level city, Sansha, which asserts dominion over 2 million square kilometers of contested waters. China has also hardened its stance by building more military outposts and deploying more warships to islands claimed by the Philippines. Even the sea’s semantics are contested: Manila calls its claimed territory the “West Philippine Sea” while Vietnam calls its claimed zone the “East Sea”.

By most accounts, the conflict appears increasingly more troubling. The International Crisis Group has determined that “all of the trends are in the wrong direction.” Worse still, these disputes are stoking tension between China and the U.S., which seeks a mediation role in the conflict. America has accused China of militarizing the dispute while China has accused the U.S. of undue meddling and a “total disregard for the facts”.

Especially worrying is the potential for clashes between China and the Philippines, a nation the U.S. is treaty bound to defend.

What nation deserves control over the sea and its troves of untapped oil? And can these nations come to an agreement without the use of force?

To help add clarity to this debate, the FCCT is pleased to host government-appointed representatives from the Philippines and Vietnam for a panel discussion. (China has formally declined to participate.) The panelists will make their nation’s case for sovereignty and take questions from the audience.

Panellists include:

  • Henry Bensurto Jr., head of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs under the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs
  • A government-appointed maritime expert from Vietnam (TBD)
  • Kavi Chongkittavorn, a frequent commentator and senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University

Date:  22 August, 2012 at 20:00 pm.

Location:  Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand

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