The Growing Threat of Maritime Conflict
The establishment of clear maritime boundar- ies and the promotion of collaborative offshore enterprises rank among the most important tasks facing the international community as the global competition for resources moves from traditional areas of struggle, such as the Middle East, to seas where the rules of engagement are less defined. The exploitation of offshore oil and gas could help compensate for the decline of existing reserves on land, but will result in increased levels of fric- tion and conflict unless accompanied by efforts to resolve maritime boundary disputes. Defining borders at sea may not be as easy as it is on land, where natural features provide obvious reference points, but it will become increasingly critical as more of the world’s vital resources are extracted from the deep oceans.
What appears most lacking in all of these situations is a perception by the larger world community that disputes like these pose a significant threat to international peace and stability. Were these disputes occurring on land, one suspects, world leaders would pay much closer attention to the risks involved and take urgent steps to avoid military action and escalation. But because they are taking place at sea, away from population centers and the media, they seem to have attracted less concern.
This is a dangerous misreading of the perils involved: Because the parties to these disputes appear more inclined to employ military force than they might elsewhere, and boundaries are harder to define, the risk of miscalculation is greater, and so is the potential for violent confrontation. The risks can only grow as the world becomes more reliant on offshore energy and coastal states become less willing to surrender maritime claims.
To prevent the outbreak of serious conflict, the international community must acknowledge the seriousness of these disputes and call on all parties involved to solve them through peaceful means, as quickly as possible. This could occur through resolutions by the UN Security Council, or statements by leaders meeting in such forums as the Group of 20 governments. Such declarations need not specify the precise nature of any particular outcome, but rather must articulate a consensus view that a resolution of some sort is essential for the common good. Arbitration by neutral, internationally respected “elders” can be provided as necessary. To facilitate this process, ambiguities in UNCLOS should be resolved and holdouts from the treaty—including the United States—should be encouraged to sign.
Maritime disputes of this sort, also involving the use or threatened use of military force, have surfaced in other parts of the world, including the Sea of Japan, the Celebes Sea, the South Atlantic, and the Eastern Mediterranean. In these and other such cases, adjacent states have announced claims to large swaths of ocean (and the seabed below) that are also claimed in whole or in part by other nearby countries. The countries involved cite various provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to justify their claims—provisions that in some cases seem to contradict one another.
Because the legal machinery for adjudicating offshore boundary disputes remains underdeveloped, and because many states are reluctant to cede authority over these matters to as-yet untested international courts and agencies, most dispu- tants have refused to abandon any of their claims. This makes resolution of the quarrels especially difficult.
What makes these disputes so dangerous, however, is the apparent willingness of many claimants to employ military means in demarking their offshore ter- ritories and demonstrating their resolve to keep them. This is evident, for example, in both the East and South China Seas, where China has repeatedly deployed its naval vessels in an aggressive fashion to assert its claims to the contested islands and chase off ships from all the other claimants. In response, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines have also employed their navies in a muscular manner, clearly aiming to show that they will not be intimidated by Bei- jing. Although shots have rarely been fired in these encounters, the ships often sail very close to each other and engage in menacing maneuvers of one sort or another, compounding the risk of accidental escalation.
The dispute in the South China Sea is even more complex. Drawing on ancient maps and historical accounts, the Chinese and Taiwanese insist that the sea’s two island chains, the Spratlys and the Para- cels, were long occupied by Chinese fisherfolk, and so the entire region belongs to them. The Viet- namese also assert historical ties to the two chains based on long-term fishing activities, while the other littoral states each claim a 200-nautical mile EEZ stretching into the heart of the sea. When com- bined, these various claims produce multiple over- laps, in some instances with three or more states involved—but always including China and Taiwan as claimants. Efforts to devise a formula to resolve the disputes through negotiations sponsored by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASE- AN) have so far met with failure: While China has offered to negotiate one-on-one with individual states but not in a roundtable with all claimants, the other countries—mindful of China’s greater wealth and power—prefer to negotiate en masse.