As the focus of global political and economic power shifts to the Asia-Pacific region and the United States feels compelled to pivot its strategic forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the relationship among major East Asian countries acquires critical importance.
Residual cold war disputes across the Atlantic are likely to be replaced by Pacific Ocean tensions in the coming years, spurring a regional arms race. An entire chapter, 7, in the United Nations Charter is devoted to the pacific settlement of disputes, many of which could fester unless recourse to the International Court of Justice and-or the UN Law of the Sea Treaty mechanism defuses them now.
The re-emergence of Shinzo Abe as prime minister of the revitalized Liberal Democratic Party in Japan’s recent elections and Park Geun-hye‘s win as president of South Korea signifies the return of nationalist right-wing political forces at the helm of two important East Asian countries. Park, after all, is the daughter of the former South Korean dictator, Park Chung-hee.
Historical memories of Japanese imperialism are still raw with the Chinese and Koreans, especially since extreme right-wing groups in Japan show no signs of apologizing for past misdeeds. To add to these historical hostilities are the new disputes over islands in the South China and East China seas, affecting not only China and Japan but also both Koreas, the Philippines, Taiwan and other Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) countries.
To complicate matters, Japanese right-wing extremists recently acquired some of the disputed islands, forcing the previous Japanese government to intervene by buying the islands from the extremists – ostensibly to stabilize the situation but without satisfying China.
Two groups of islands are in dispute, but all of them are uninhabited, rocky and barren outcrops sitting atop reportedly huge deposits of oil and gas. In the first group are the South China Sea Islands, consisting of more than 250 islands.
They are grouped as follows: Spratly Islands – disputed among China, Taiwan and Vietnam, with Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines claiming part of the archipelago; Paracel Islands – disputed among China, Taiwan and Vietnam; Pratas Islands – disputed between China and Taiwan; Macclesfield Bank – disputed among China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam; and Scarborough Shoal – argued among China, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Problems arose within Asean at its July 2012 summit, with Cambodia, being pro-Chinese, urging everyone not to internationalize the islands issue despite the Philippines’ insistence to do so. The result was no consensus over a final document from the meeting. In response to a submission by Vietnam and Malaysia, informing the UN of the demarcation of their continental shelf boundary, China reiterated its territorial claims and submitted a map with nine dash lines enclosing most of the South China Sea. This was the first time the map was circulated as a UN document.
The second group of islands under contention is in the East China Sea, where the main clash is over the Diaoyu Islands (China’s name), or Senkaku Islands (Japan’s name), located between Japan and China. China, Japan and South Korea also contest the extent of their exclusive economic zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, by the way, the US has not ratified.
The argument between China and South Korea concerns Socotra Rock – a submerged reef on a separate island, where South Korea has constructed a scientific research station.
In this context, there are two main avenues open to the parties to settle the claims peacefully. Where continental shelf claims are involved, the Law of the Sea treaty can be used to find a settlement. The ratification of the treaty by China, Japan and others place all the countries within the jurisdiction of this UN convention.
Article 76 (8) of the treaty is explicit: “The Commission shall make recommendations to coastal States on matters related to the establishment of the outer limits of their continental shelf. The limits of the shelf established by a coastal State on the basis of these recommendations shall be final and binding.”
A BBC report in December 2012 said that China has submitted a detailed explanation of its claims to a disputed area of the East China Sea to the UN. That is an encouraging sign of pragmatism on the part of the new Chinese leadership, which should be reciprocated by others.
It is also possible for the parties to go the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as many other countries have done.
Finally, diplomatic discussions can also resolve disagreements, although the current relations among countries in the region are not conducive to doing so.
As a major power, like India vis-à-vis its South Asian neighbors, China would like to deal with countries bilaterally. In 2002, a code of conduct was agreed on within Asean regarding the disputed islands, and it is in everyone’s interest that this should be observed. What will certainly complicate matters is if the U.S. tries to intervene, either through its treaty with Japan or out of strategic imperatives to support Asean and “contain” the rising power of China, which is not a member of Asean.