China’s efforts to improve ties with its Southeast Asian neighbours have managed to reduce the likelihood of a military clash in the South China Sea.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members have refused to back away from asserting sovereign rights over disputed waters in the sea area.
However, hopes that they might benefit from China’s economic growth — and the need for supplies of the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine — have helped cool disputes.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has promised to end a territorial waters dispute in return for China’s economic support.
China has urged the Philippines to focus on the potential for joint oil and gas activities in the South China Sea, rather than disagreements over maritime borders.
Several months ago, the Philippines lifted an earlier embargo on oil and gas exploration in contested South China Sea waters, effectively reopening the door to joint upstream operations with China.
China and Brunei established a working group on energy co-operation under the framework of the China-Brunei intergovernmental joint steering committee, and said they would look to set up a marine co-operation working group.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed his nation’s desire to move the focus away from maritime disputes to collaborative exploration for resources in his recent visit to Asean countries.
China has also moved away from drilling activities in the disputed areas over the past two years, trying focus more on the non-disputed Qiongdongnan and Pearl River Mouth basins.
Sources said that offshore operator China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) is now focusing on exploring deep reservoirs in shallow-water areas of the South China Sea.
None of the six oil and gas fields CNOOC has listed for development in the South China Sea over the next couple of years are in the disputed areas.
The most recent serious clash came in 2014, when CNOOC deployed its deep-water semi-submersible rig Hai Yang Shi You 981 in what Vietnam claimed was its exclusive economic zone.
Vietnam and China agreed on an equal split of their maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin in 2000 but have yet to agree on demarcating waters farther south, where the rig was operating.
Sources say an agreement between China and India not to open fire in any border clashes could serve as a template for showing restraint in maritime border disputes in the South China Sea.
China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also have overlapping claims.