While China and its neighbours beat their chests and howl at each other over ownership of islands, rocks and reefs that may hold the keys to submarine energy reserves, other countries are dealing with similar quarrels more calmly.
Burma and Bangladesh are preparing to offer 35 licences for offshore oil and gas blocks in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea after resolving an equally bitter territorial dispute earlier this year.
Later this month Bangladesh will seek tenders for three deep water blocks and nine in shallow water.
Burma is planning to offer 23 offshore licences by the end of the year in both the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Six are in shallow water and 17 are deep water blocks.
This will be a landmark in the transition of Burma which last year elected a civilian government after four decades of military rule.
Major international energy companies have been unwilling to invest in Burma or have been banned from doing so because of sanctions against the military regime.
But Burma’s shift to a civilian government and the resolving of the dispute with Bangladesh is opening up the Bay of Bengal, which has high potential for oil and gas production, but is largely unexplored.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who spent 15 years under house arrest during the era of the junta, has expressed concerns about the speed with which sanctions against Burma are being lifted.
During a visit to the United States last month she again expressed unhappiness with Washington’s July decision to lift bans on investment by American companies in Burma’s oil and gas reserves.
Her concern is that these investments must be done in partnership with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).
Suu Kyi says that MOGE remains a major source of money for Burma’s military despite the transition to civilian rule.
She asked Washington, without success, to restrain American companies until MOGE is accountable and its affairs transparent.
The dispute between Burma and Bangladesh saw several confrontations between warships from both navies over disputed rights to submarine resources south of Bangladesh’s St. Martin’s island in the Bay of Bengal.
The dispute rumbled along for 30 years, but approached a crisis in late 2008 when the South Korean company Daewoo obtained a concession from Burma to explore the waters south of St. Martin’s.
Burma sent warships to protect the Daewoo exploration vessels. But then Bangladesh retaliated by sending its own naval ships to the area and upped the ante by granting exploration rights to the same blocks to the United States multinational energy company, ConocoPhillips.
However, before the confrontation could turn violent, Bangladesh suggested to the Burmese government that they submit their claims for binding arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
But Burma was in 2009 still an overt military regime subject to many international sanctions. The generals in their new custom-built capital Naypyidaw were not at all keen to put a case before the ICJ in case the court took the opportunity to look at broader complaints about their activities.
So Bangladesh and Burma agreed instead to ask for a judgment from the more narrowly focused International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which is based in Hamburg, Germany.
There’s been some carping in Burma that the ITLOS ruling appears to favour Bangladesh. And indeed the tribunal did rule that the disputed area south of St. Martin’s is Bangladeshi waters, not Burmese.
Bangladesh, some Burmese newspapers have commented sniffily, acquired 4,000 square kilometres of sea territory it didn’t have before the ITLOS ruling.
But a more balanced view is that the tribunal awarded Burma 171,800 square kilometres, or about 60 per cent, of the territory under arbitration while Bangladesh got 111,600 square kilometres, about 40 per cent.
Ultimately more important, however, is that the matter is now resolved and both countries can get on with exploration and development of resources without fear of further diplomatic wrangling or even warfare.
There is as yet no indication that China and its contesting neighbours — Japan in the East China Sea, and Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei in the South China Sea — are prepared to take the same route.
(Vancouver Sun Report)