The China National Overseas Oil Corporation (CNOOC) began drilling in Vietnamese-claimed waters last week, accompanied by more than 70 vessels, including armed Chinese warships. At first glance, this might look like merely another front in China's quest for natural resources, which has taken Chinese companies to seemingly every corner of the earth.
Yet what is happening in the South China Sea is actually far more dangerous than what has come before — and the forces driving it go well beyond pursuit of energy riches. The United States needs to face up to the full magnitude of the Chinese challenge to have any hope of successfully confronting it. This means not only tough talk but also a willingness to take difficult action.
There has long been speculation that massive oil and gas deposits are locked beneath the South China Sea — 1.4 million square miles bordered by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam and claimed in part by all of them. According to the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources, the area might contain as much as 400 billion barrels of oil, surpassing the bounties of the Middle East.
Most informed estimates, though, are much smaller. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2010 that the region's undiscovered oil (much of which will never be financially attractive to produce) totals a far smaller 11 billion barrels. It is difficult to believe that China would risk armed conflict for such modest stakes.