There is one long festering issue in the world that you surely do not regularly see on the nightly news or your Facebook newsfeed and yet has the potential to greatly alter the geopolitical landscape of South and East Asia: the situation in the South and East China Seas, which have polarized the region to a point of potential outright violence. Though many people view these disputes over land and sea rights as separate, their root causes and geographic proximity are close enough that they can—and should—be looked at together.
Firstly, the People’s Republic of China lays claim to a vast majority of the South China Sea. Their claim not only extends beyond the limits that would be defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), but also infringes on the boundaries of other nations as prescribed by that same agreement. To add to that, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam all make similar extended claims into the South China sea that overlap. This overlap has created an incredibly explosive situation in which any spark could set the entire rig alight.
The Paracel Islands, about 7.75 square kilometers (4.8 square miles) of land, are claimed by both Vietnam and China. China annexed the islands in the 1970s, though it was a possession of French Indochina immediately prior. The islands are also ideal for fishing and the production of other natural resources.
The Spratly Islands are a cluster of more than one hundred islands that total nearly 5 square kilometers (3.1 square miles) which is claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The islands are valuable for their fishing, oil, and gas potential.
China has made it clear that it will assert its dominance over what it claims to be its sovereign territory, making the situation one that is increasingly dangerous. Vietnam and China have clashed in the waters through various incidents of “unintentional” violence on both sides, although it has never been an official act. These incidents have also occurred between the other claimant states, though China is usually the common denominator. Violent episodes where ships are sunk by other nations usually appear to be a show of power where a nation is trying to assert its hegemony over its neighbors.
This is not to point the finger of blame at China. China is on the rise and has every right to protect and secure the interests of its people. As many experts have proclaimed, Asia is going through its version of the Industrial Revolution. This is why the naval traffic and prospects of these rising nations is such a sensitive issue; the future of Asia and its inhabitants is definitely going to be determined by who has the most access to the profitable resources these waters and islands hold. Additionally, having control over the flow of sea traffic at such a moment of growth and change is important to all nations wishing to attain or maintain power in the region.
Though those same symptoms of conflict can be found within the situation in the East China Sea, there is much more history at play to keep the flames burning. Sino-Japanese relations have, for most of history, been poor. In recent times, we can look to the devastating wreckage that both the Japanese and the Chinese witnessed during the Second Sino-Japanese War to understand the depth of the distrust that both sides have for one another. Now, with the advent of declared airspace and the discovery of the vast hydrocarbon deposits on the islands, the age old grudge has found new life. The entire conflict boils down to the struggle over five islands, collectively referred to as the Senkaku/Diaoyu (Japanese and Chinese names, respectively).
Given China’s arguable regional supremacy, their stance on the islands should not come as a surprise. However, their claims are against Japan, who received the land from the United States—who only owned the land because of their post-WWII occupation of Japan—in 1971. China does have the upper hand militarily, and the already present anti-Chinese nationalistic sentiments have paved the way for a popular push for more military strength for Japan. After being pressured by Japanese citizens to do so, the Japanese government purchased three out of five of the islands outright from their private owners. This prompted a new wave of anti-Japanese protests in China and hurt Japanese business in China.
Repeatedly, both sides have increased their presence in the region through greater patrols and more vigilant surveillance. Their rhetoric is nationalistic and militaristic in nature, with both nations proclaiming their eventual dominance over the foothold and its resources. It would only take one mistake, one accidental invasion of declared space, one naval movement to light the powder keg.
Now, what can the world do about either situation? Many argue over the proper approach to be taken by those directly involved and those who are removed. Any resolution to either conflict requires a multifaceted approach on varying levels of international cooperation.
First, for the directly involved nations, easing the tense situations individually is essential. By working directly with one another to find common ground and explore the possibility of joint-management of resources, governments can avoid these tensions altogether. Arrangements similar to the one between Vietnam and China over a common fishery zone could completely avoid conflict over the gas and oil resources found on the contested islands. Agencies and mechanisms such as the various international courts that the Philippines has pushed for as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must be used. Such negotiations must take into consideration the developmental needs of all claimants, what will provide a profit to all parties involved, and how these resources should be managed now and in the future.
This must also include an effort to de-escalate the intensifying militarization in the contested spaces. While the situation in the South China Sea has proven to have the potential for military engagement, this truly imperative for the situation in the East China Sea. Several governments from the region and abroad, including the government of the United States, have publicly voiced support for moves made by the government of Japan away from their former policy of pacifism. The support for such military bolstering probably comes from the desire of many nations to counter the strength of China in the region. However, a policy of deterrence does not make for good-faith negotiations. It is important that negotiations take place that bolster trust instead of foster passive aggressions like what we are currently witnessing.
Lastly, the international community beyond the boundaries of Asia has a role in defusing tensions as well. The United States is in a great position to counter the power of China in the region. By supporting the smaller nations surrounding China, the United States allows those nations to stand up against China and further press their claims.
However, this tactic should be avoided at all costs. The United States should do everything in its power to avoid involving itself in these conflicts. For the South China Sea, the United States should solely offer support for the diplomatic easing of tensions. Serving as a third-party mediator should be the only method of involvement used. For the East China Seas, the United States needs to press both China and Japan to use the diplomatic channels available to them before any sort of militarism is even considered. The same goes for Europe and any nations which wish to ease these tensions; diplomacy above all else.
Supporting militarism or any sort of direct conflict between the states involved is a hindrance and will only hurt the region as a whole, especially considering more than half of global oil exports travel through its waters. As we are not directly involved in this conflict, we should try to maintain some sense of neutrality and refuse to exacerbate the conflicts. The situations in the South and East China Seas are important for many historical, economic, and diplomatic reasons. If war was to occur, the loss would be great. That alone should keep us focused on resolving this issue, instead of only paying attention when our national interests come into play.
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Xinbo, Wu. “America Should Step Back from the East China Dispute.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2014. Web. 30 Jul 2014.
Xu, Benia. “South China Sea Tensions.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 2014. Web. 30 Jul 2014.