Natural Gas Discoveries Could Add to Chinese Claims in South China Sea

China has reportedly discovered a rare form of natural gas in the South China Sea.

The substance is known as flammable ice. It is a frozen mixture of gas and water that comes from under the sea floor.

China’s Xinhua News Agency reported last week that China had removed at least 861,400 cubic meters of flammable ice as part of operations that began in February.

International observers say the discovery could give China a new source of energy for its 1.4 billion people and another reason to support its claims to the South China Sea.

China claims most of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea as its territory. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the area.

China has angered other claimants in recent years by creating small artificial islands in the disputed waterway. Observers say Chinese crews have developed some of the land for military purposes.

The experts say China could expand its influence in the area by selling flammable gas extraction technology to other countries or partnering with them to remove it.

Eduardo Araral is with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He told VOA he thinks the discovery “simply strengthens their argument” about why China should remain in the sea to extract oil and gas.

However, Araral noted that international law would not recognize an energy discovery as a cause for claiming sovereignty.

China’s minister of land and resources said the country mined flammable ice at sea for the first time in 2017 after about 20 years of research, Xinhua reported. The area of the discovery, known as Shenhu, sits in undisputed Chinese waters 320 kilometers from the mainland.

The energy source – which can also be found in Arctic tundra – is considered clean and easy to transport, yet hard to monetize.

Flammable ice is thought to exist in other parts of the sea, notes Stuart Orr, a professor of management at Deakin University in Australia. He said this means other countries will likely take an interest in the discovery.

While other claimant governments are busy working to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, they are likely to react in the future if China expands its exploration.

Nguyen Thanh Trung is director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. “So far, I haven’t (seen) any official diplomatic protests from the Vietnamese side, but I think that they are closely watching the development,” he said.

Collin Koh is a researcher specializing in security issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He told VOA he thinks the latest flammable ice operation presents a chance for China to demonstrate its “technological prowess” and seek partnerships with other countries.

Koh noted that other claimants to the South China Sea lack their own flammable ice technology. They do, however, organize their own search operations for oil and natural gas.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Ralph Jennings reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for Learning English. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

source n. where something comes from

flammableadj. easily set on fire

artificialadj. something not natural, but created by people

extraction n. the act of taking something out, especially using force

sovereigntyn. a country’s independent power and the right to govern itself

tundra – n. flat, treeless part of the Arctic in which the soil is permanently frozen

prowess – n. great skill at doing something

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