Resource based Conflicts: Causes and South China Sea ( Example)

Resources are often taken for granted but they are the basis of life to every living organism. Nature may seem peaceful but has grave impacts on the populace because of its unequal and distorted distribution. This has caused many conflicts for time immemorial. The below paper explains the paradigm between resource and conflict and provides a brief on the Conflict of the South China Sea as an example.

South Sea China is the example for resource based conflict

Natural Resources are resources that exist without any actions of humankind. Usually termed as the ‘Gifts of Nature’, these resources were oftentimes the reasons for many invasions and conflicts. We know that the basis of imperialism was to procure raw goods which come from nature, at times naturally like timber and the other times with human intervention like in agriculture. We might not come across imperialism in today’s world; nevertheless, we see numerous conflicts which are caused due to resources. Resources naturally exist; no one owns them and hence, widely contested. Locally, individuals may be the ones in contestation, however, on a larger scale, the nation-states, international bodies, non-governmental organizations, and many other actors have been involved in resource-caused conflicts. Through the following sections, we shall learn more about natural resources and the relationship between resources and conflicts.

Resource Caused Conflicts

Paul Collier, an expert on the economics of civil war estimates that close to fifty armed conflicts active in 2001 had a strong link to natural resource exploitation, in which either licit or illicit exploitation helped to trigger, intensify, or sustain violence (USIP, 2007). Since resources are the basic needs for peoples’ survival and also a means of the economy to many states, having access to vital resources becomes inevitable. In the process of procurement, there are many instances of conflict. Some resources impact locally, while others globally. There are two terms usually used to describe the resource conflicts –

  • Resource War – the term refers to conflicts revolving over the ‘pursuit or possession of critical materials’ where ‘critical’ resources usually include water, petroleum and natural gas, timber, fisheries, and minerals.
  • Resource Curse – the term used to explain the paradox that the countries with abundant natural resources often have less economic growth than those without natural resources. The revenue-producing resources are the most problematic ones.

However, it should be noted that just one resource cannot be the source of a major conflict. A resource may be one of the many reasons for a conflict between two parties. These reasons could be cultural, historical, ethnic, religious, political, and many others. Resource sharing amidst a pre-existing conflict often exacerbates the conflicts. However, there are instances where the conflicts have cooled down with the help of a resource-sharing strategy.

The bigger question however is why a resource causes a conflict.

Reasons for Conflicts

There are two ways that natural resources are available, that is, either in scarcity or in abundance. Because of this unevenly distributive nature of resources, there are conflicts.

Scarcity of resources is also called neo-Malthusian views. According to Colin’s States, Scarcity, Civil Strife in the Developing World, this view argues –

“The neo-Malthusians argue that rapid population growth, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and unequal resource access combine to exacerbate poverty and income inequality in many of the world’s least developed countries. These deprivations are easily translated into grievances, increasing the risks of rebellion and societal conflict.”

When resource scarcity is combined with unstable governance, then the conflicts are even more violent. With unstable political situations, governance and institutions handled by the government are not properly placed. This might lead to the inability or ignorance of the government to provide for its ever-growing population or provide unequally leaving certain sections of the populace under poverty.

On the other hand, as the parody of ‘Resource Curse’ highlights, the most resource-abundant countries are the unfortunate ones. This is because of corruption, economic stagnation, and violent conflicts over access to resources. Especially, easily commutable goods like minerals (gold, diamonds, and others), timber can be easily looted by rebel groups causing more damage to the conflicts. When resources are abundant, the ownership of the resources plays a major role. The local community, who had been looking after the resources for ages claim the ownership based on history, while the state also claims ownership, and multiple outside groups try to win the ownership through various methods causing either internal rife between the locals and the state or external rife between outer actors and the state.

Another concern in today’s world is the withering of resources globally. With the increase in population and high demands along with the major phase of industrialization and globalization, there has been greater stress on the planet. This trend which persists the world over makes it even more difficult to have an equitable lifestyle and conflict-free society. As we face a resource crunch, conflicts tend to rise. To learn more about the resource-caused conflicts, we need to understand the perspectives on the ‘Resource Wars’.

Three Perspectives of ‘Resource Wars’

There are three ways one can view a ‘Resource War’.  The conflicts caused by resources can have various underlying reasons along with the resource. To understand the connection between resource and conflicts, there are three perspectives –

  • Geopolitical Perspective – In this view the resource war is frequently connected to the interstate conflicts over strategic resources like oil. Mainstream geopolitical perspectives on resources have clearly put a priority on the resource supply security of wealthy nations, to the point of calling for military invasions abroad or resource autarky at home (Billon, 2009). This perspective involves the militarisation of the strategic resource supply chain. The best example of this perspective is the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003.


  • Political Economy Perspective – This perspective connects resource and conflict with the idea of resource abundance or scarcity. As the resources become scarce the tendency for war increases. The political and economic dependence on the resources has major impacts on conflicts. From political economy perspectives, have strived to find general patterns in the conditions and processes linking resources and conflicts, and for methodological rigueur through mostly quantitative studies (Billon, 2009).


  • Political Ecology Perspective – This perspective emphasises contextualisation, multidimensional power relations, and broad characterisation of resources and their mode of production, circulation, and consumption (Billon, 2009). This perspective tries to involve the historical, identities, and other concepts instead of just focusing on the narrow definitions.

South China Sea – An Overview

The South China Sea is a strategically important sea. It is a commercial waterway that connects Asia with Europe and Africa. About one-third of the global shipping passes through the South China Sea. The sea is also known to be home to rich natural resources. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the region is said to have around 90 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Other estimates take the numbers much higher. The sea is also a major fishing destination for the countries around it. It accounts for about 10 per cent of the world’s fisheries making it one of the most important food sources. The uninhabited islands of Parcel and Spratly are also known to possess major resources which make them a valuable asset. Its vital importance in connecting the global supply chains as well as the abundance of rich natural resources makes it a strategically important location. This region has been contested by many claimants for several years now. In recent times, the conflict has increased making it one of the major global concerns.

Under the Law of Sea Convention, every state has a right to 200 nautical miles from its shore as its Exclusive Economic Zones. In these zones, the states can exploit the resources of the sea and the seabed. In the regions where these zones overlap, the states are supposed to cooperate and mutually benefit from the common zone. This is yet to be done in the South China Sea. The delay in Law enforcement is one of the reasons for the conflict. The countries that surround the South China Sea and those that claim the rights on the sea are – China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Apart from Brunei, every other country has claimed small islands which are part of either Parcel or Spratly Islands.

The claim by each country is based on different pieces of evidence. At the end of the Second World War, no claimant came forward. Soon in 1946, China occupied a few of the Spratly Islands. Then, French and Vietnam had occupied few islands. One Philippine citizen claimed the chain of Spratly Islands his own.  All through the years, there have been many claims based on historical and traditional evidence. The Sea was militarised by the countries to protect their claimed regions.

Currently, China occupies about 80 percent of the South China Sea within its proclaimed boundary of the nine-dash line. Vietnam and the Philippines have been unhappy with the Chinese claims. Though China plants its huge People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the region, it hardly takes action. China has been carrying out its Grey Zone Operations in the region through which it tries to terrorise its neighbours and win the region. Unfortunately, unable to match up the quantitatively enormous Navy of China, the smaller countries have either remained silent or have taken international help. The US has conducted multiple “freedom of navigation” missions which have made China unhappy leading to grim relations between the two countries. Amidst the conflicts between global powers in the South China Sea, the smaller nations, according to Professor Renato DeCastro, might take better advantage of the presence of the global powers in the region without ignoring them.

The only possible solution to the South China Sea conflict is to have defined boundaries but coming to a common consensus is a tedious task. Despite the difficulty, there should be steps taken for an amicable existence in the region to bring peace for a long conflict.


Natural Resources either make or break the relations. Being one of the most vital resources needed for survival, they are a necessity to all living organisms. Natural Resources are the most contested commodities on this planet. If at times, man fights man for the resources, the other times’ citizen vs. governments or maybe humans vs. animals. Conflicts have always been a part of the distribution process of natural resources and more are yet to come as we see nature deplete. Nonetheless, we should also remember that nature is the only thing that brings us all together. Resources connect man to man, citizens to governments, and humans to animals. Being the only connecting entity, resource sharing has many times resolved conflicts. For instance, Guatemala’s long political conflict over land ownership was resolved with the decision to make a biosphere reserve; the boundary issues of Peru and Ecuador over the Cordillera del Condor region was resolved with the decision to build a peace park. Hence for the better of all, we should try and use resources to come together rather than a means for bloodshed.


Sunaina is an undergraduate student pursuing Political Science and Economics from the University of Delhi. She finds herself in a never-ending quest!