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China Tussles for Sea Oil

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

China-South China Sea: China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC), a state oil company, invited foreign firms in late June to bid on oil blocks that overlap territory being explored by Vietnam.

Oil companies have until next June to decide whether to bid for the nine blocks, said a Chinese industry source. China claims almost all the South China Sea and rejects the claims of all other coastal states.

One regional analyst opined that "China's view is that the little countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines, are increasingly stealing its resources and it must demonstrate it is serious about upholding its claims."

The Philippines put two disputed blocks on offer on Tuesday but only received three separate bids for exploration rights, an indication that there was little appetite to go up against China in the South China Sea.

Comment: One commentator observed that the Chinese have moved in stages from regional diplomacy; to belligerence against the naval patrol units of the coastal states; to granting claims. As another Brilliant Reader observed, Chinese claims are now actual, not theoretical. The process has been both methodical and inexorable.

The Beijing government is acting quickly, before the US builds up its forces in the western Pacific. In granting exploration rights it also is converting the disputes over claims into legal battles rather than military tests of strength.

A recent evaluation of the fossil fuel resources in the South China Sea concluded the crude and natural gas resources are second only to Saudi Arabia and could supply Chinese demand for 100 years. Even allowing for miscalculation, the deposits are large enough to fight for.

The burdens of ownership have shifted. Previously, China maintained its claim to the South China Sea, but the coastal states dominated the discussion which focused on disputes among themselves. In the past five years, China has come to dominate the discussion of ownership and the coastal states have no capability to challenge China, unless the US intervenes.

In the short run, US companies stand to benefit irrespective of the ownership disputes because they know the waters and seabeds and own the technology for deep sea drilling and exploitation.

India: A reminder. India has developed its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, according to unnamed military sources, Press Trust of India reported 1 August. The ballistic missile was developed for India's nuclear-powered submarine the INS Arihant and is believed to have a range of 700 kilometers (about 435 miles).

Comment: This is not news except that the announcement from India's Defense Research and Development Organization means the missile is ready for production. India is still about a year away from having a patrol-capable ballistic missile submarine. In other words, the INS Arihant, the Indian SSBN, is expected to begin its "deterrent patrols" next summer. This weapons system will be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

Iraq-Syria: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said the Iraqi government has taken security and military precautions in response to the situation in Syria, All Iraq News reported Aug. 1, citing a statement from al Maliki's office.

Comment: The Baghdad government is trying to avoid entanglement in the Syrian crisis, while showing sympathy to the al Asad government. Both are allies of Iran. Maliki's increased border security measures are to prevent anti-Shiite fighters from entering Iraq from Syria. Last week some of the Sunni opposition fighters took over a Syrian border post, but killed more than 20 Iraqi border security personnel in the process.

The Shiite dominated Iraqi government is not sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, which is mostly Sunni.

Saudi Arabia: Special Comment: During this Watch, Saudi Arabian officials have not confirmed nor denied rumors that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan has died from wounds sustained in a 22 July bombing of the General Intelligence Headquarters in Riyadh. The US also has had no comment on this issue, which has received little treatment in mainstream American media.

Bandar was appointed President of the General Intelligence Presidency on 19 July, the day after the bombing in Damascus that killed the Minister of Defense and President al Asad's brother-in-law, among other senior officials.

What has been confirmed by official sources is that unidentified terrorists executed a bombing at the Saudi intelligence headquarters on the 22nd and killed the deputy chief of intelligence. No reports at the time or since indicated Bandar was mortally wounded.

Many blogs and a few news services reported that Bandar has made no public appearances nor has been listed as an attendee at an official function since the 22 July attack. Multiple, complex searches of the Internet found no information about public appearances by Bandar.

Bandar has kept a low profile and it is the fasting month of Ramadan, which could explain his absence from public reporting. More importantly, the Saudis easily could put to rest the rumors of Bandar's death. They have not. Nor has the White House refuted the reports, as it easily could do, were Bandar still alive.


If he died from an assassination attempt on the 22d, the most obvious and likely culprits are Syria and Iran. The case against Syria is that the attack on the 22d is in retaliation for the 18 July attack in Damascus.

This is not likely because it exceeds Syrian capabilities. For more than a year Syria intelligence has been preoccupied by internal threats. The time required to mount an external operation is long and depends on inside knowledge of the movements and schedules of the targets. These are beyond Syria's present and recent capabilities.

The Iranians are also obvious beneficiaries from the death of a superstar in a rather ordinary Saudi monarchy. The Iranians have the skills but have not demonstrated the capabilities or intentions to execute such an operation against the Saudis. Assassination of Bandar would be an act of war that risked a general conflict.

The ayatollahs have shown no disposition to internationalize the Syrian conflict, especially while US aircraft carrier task groups are in the region. Despite their bombastic public statements, Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadi-Nejad are not risk takers when US aircraft carriers are nearby.

A more plausible scenario, derived from the Riyadh bombing of 2003 and other past bombings, is that an internal dissident group, possibly working with Iran or Syria, executed the 22 July attack. The timing relative to the 18 July attack creates the perception of cause and effect, but that is almost certainly serendipity. This scenario would constitute another disaster for Saudi security.

Riyadh has experienced a number of bombings in the last ten years. All have been attributed to al Qaida, internal dissidents or Hezbollah operatives. Any or all could be agents of Iran, but any action against the Saudi monarchy serves Iran's interests, no matter who sponsors the attack.

For now the 18 July attack in Damascus and the 22 July attack in Riyadh that reportedly resulted in Bandar's death appear to be symmetrical, evening the score. The perception is the reality and that should keep the situation from escalating to general war, assuming Bandar is dead.

If Bandar is alive, all of this reporting has been a false alarm. If he has been killed, then no one is safe in Saudi Arabia. More later.

Syria: A two-minute video posted to YouTube shows armed men in Aleppo killing captured elder members of the al-Birri tribe because the captives supported President Bashar al Asad, various news outlets reported.

Comment: The al Birri's are a large Sunni clan in the Aleppo area that has become wealthy through its long association with and loyalty to the Asad family, and reportedly its engagement in smuggling. The Syrian opposition executed the clan leader, who is a member of parliament and two of his cousins. The opposition apparently judged the execution video would be beneficial to post on the Internet.

There are no good guys in the Syrian situation.

End of NightWatch ###

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