Cooler Heads in the South China Sea

Cooler Heads in the South China Sea

Washington should focus on calming everyone down, not containing China.


The Japanese ship Chiyoda during an exercise in the South China Sea.The United States is realizing that the escalating tensions in the Far East, especially between China and Japan, should no longer be viewed as an opportunity to contain China. Instead, our first priority should be to get everyone to calm down.

At issue are the territorial rights over some forty piles of rock, most uninhabited, some barely sticking out of the water. These conflicts already have led to large nationalist anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and similar anti-Chinese demonstrations in Japan; saber-rattling activists planting their nation’s flag on some of the islands; and clashes between vessels of several regional nations—all fueled by increasingly hot rhetoric by public leaders. These smaller clashes look increasingly like the type of incidents that can spin out of control and lead to more serious conflagrations.


The United States, which keeps veering between seeking to engage China and moves to “contain” it, had at first—at least indirectly—urged the nations of the area to band together and push back against Chinese claims to many of the islands at issue. However, most recently Secretary Panetta called on China and Japan “to move forward and not have this dispute get out of hand” and emphasized that all parties share a responsibility to resolve the conflicts peacefully. And—the ever industrious U.S. think tanks have taken off their shelves a whole host of proposals that could defuse the crisis.

Disputes over maritime territorial rights fall under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and should be settled in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). (The fact that the United States did not ratify the treaty involved seems immaterial because Washington typically operates as if it were committed to UNCLOS.) But such settlements take years.

In the short term, the think tankers are calling on China and Japan to establish a hotline so that their leaders will be better able to nip in the bud any unintended confrontations. Moreover, both nations are urged to declare unequivocally that “military force is not an option.” A more ambitious plan calls for a return to a derailed 2010 agreement for the joint development of gas fields in the South China Sea. The Economist suggests that the nations involved should do the environment a favor and turn the islands and surrounding seas into marine protected areas to combat overfishing, a problem that seriously threatens the economies and ecology of the region.

Douglas H. Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out that to combat overfishing, China, Vietnam and Taiwan have already “initiated fishing seasons, periodic bans, and limits on sizes of catches to support sustainable harvesting, but these are not harmonized and often conflict.” Hence Paal calls “greater control of the fishing fleets, with effective sanctions on misbehavior under rules agreed upon in common, [an] achievable and responsible goal.”

One must acknowledge that islands are not fought over simply as real estate but because they serve as markers for determining maritime rights. According to a widely followed reading of international law, a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extends two hundred miles off its shores. Thus, if nations can populate and prove ownership over tiny islands in their near seas, they can expand their EEZ and gain access to the surrounding natural resources—not only fish but also coveted fuels and minerals that lie beneath the seabed. Hence, for nations such as China and Japan, whose economies are highly dependent on the secure access to and development of such resources, these islands are much more than “piles of rocks.”

In Sharing the Resources of the South China Sea, Mark Valencia, Jon Van Dyke and Noel Ludwig suggest establishing “regional sovereignty” over the islands in the South China Sea among the six claimants, allowing them to collectively manage the islands, territorial seas and airspace. Of course, this would require an agreement among the parties as how to share the spoils.

Another option, put forward by Peter Dutton of the Naval War College, would emulate the resolution of the dispute over Svalbard, an island located between Norway and Greenland. The Treaty of Spitsbergen, signed in 1920, awarded primary sovereignty over Svarlbard to Norway but assigned resource-related rights to all signatories. Applying this model to the South and East China Seas likely would entail giving sovereignty to China while permitting other countries to benefit from the resources. Though, at least in the near term, such a solution is unlikely to be accepted by the other claimants.

Still others have suggested declaring a moratorium on any exploration until the tensions are defused and conflicts are worked out. And a troika of foreign ministers in the region, including nations not directly involved such as Indonesia and Australia, has been urged to help work out an evenhanded solution.

Those who hold that all these suggestions are naive should note that such settlements do take place. One case will have to stand for several others. In 2009, five years after the decades-old dispute was brought to court, the ICJ settled a dispute between Ukraine and Romania over the Black Sea, whose seabed holds an estimated ten million tons of oil. One key issue was whether the Serpent Island would be considered a cliff or an island. The Romanians claimed it was “a cliff” (hence irrelevant to territorial demarcation) while Ukraine held it was “an island” and thus that Ukraine’s maritime boundaries extended beyond Serpent Island’s shores. The ICJ ruled it a cliff and delivered a judgment that granted Romania about 80 percent of the disputed area (though the oil was more concentrated on the Ukrainian side). Both sides accepted the decision.

If cooler heads prevail and Washington continues to throw its weight in support of tensions reduction and conflict resolution by negotiation, some of these proposals or others like them may carry the day. All sides surely realize—given the fragile state of the global economy, the political transition in China, the rise of nationalism that threatens to spin out of control—that this is a particularly poor time to escalate tensions.

Resource allocation is a contentious issue, but raw materials have a virtue: they can be divided. Disputes over such assets do not have to be settled in a winner-takes-all fashion, allowing all the nations involved to gain some of the spoils and save face. In contrast, if the clashes spin out of control, the disputants and the bystanders will all be losers.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World, is forthcoming from Transaction this October.