How to avoid maritime conflict in Asia
September 7th, 2012
11:54 AM ET

How to avoid maritime conflict in Asia

By Douglas Paal, CEIP

Editor's note: Douglas H. Paal is director for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where this commentary originally appeared. The views expressed are his own.

Rising tensions over maritime claims in the South China Sea have in recent months metastasized once again to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and Dokdo/Takeshima Islets in the Sea of Japan, proving that the origins of the disputes do not all lie with China, although many involve Beijing’s interests, as well as those of Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, and Bandar Seri Begawan.

The United States fears being dragged into conflicts over minuscule territories, but has an interest in maximum freedom of navigation and preventing aggression. It has urged all parties to show restraint, avoid precipitate behavior, and settle their issues peacefully. All parties pay lip service to a “code of conduct” that would forestall tensions, but a strong and binding code is proving elusive. Given the realities, the situation cries out for a more concrete diplomatic initiative.

The competing sovereign claims are not susceptible to resolution soon, because they engage fundamental national interests and stir complementary nationalist sentiments. With the “correlation of forces” changing in the region, as China’s power and reach increase, Japan confronts fiscal and constitutional constraints, and the United States “rebalances” to the region, there are too many moving parts, and no longer one dominant power or the aftermath of a major war to dictate an outcome. The costs of military solutions would be too great for the stakes in the region. The claimant states will be dissatisfied for a long time; those that occupy the disputed islands will not lightly surrender their positions. Someday far from now, wisdom may prevail and the current administrators will likely control what they administer, but there are growing frictions to manage in the meantime.

There is little point here in going into the interesting domestic politics of a leadership transition in China and upcoming elections in Korea and Japan that are undoubtedly fueling the frictions. These are a reality that outsiders cannot do much about except through exhibiting restraint to avoid provoking predictably counterproductive reactions.

But two factors common to all the disputes are providing fuel for the flames: declining regional (and global) fisheries and a race to capture petroleum, natural gas, and other sea-bottom resources. Here, outsiders can play a helpful role.

With economic transformation, China’s huge population has quintupled its consumption of marine proteins while poisoning and overfishing much of its internal and contiguous waters. Beijing and its local authorities have responsibly promoted fish farming to try to meet the growing demand, while downsizing the fleet that fishes nearby waters. But at the same time, China is paying incentives for more distant fishing by larger and more powerful vessels. This seems a reasonable way to meet the demand for marine products, but it may have an unspoken hidden agenda to press China’s fishermen to create a presence in disputed waters that underscores China’s legal claims.

China is the biggest player, but it is not alone. Vietnam’s reliance on fish and fish exports has grown dramatically in recent years. The Philippines’ fishing captains are similarly motivated. Japan fears Chinese fishing boats will critically deplete declining resources around the Senkaku Islands. Taiwan’s assertive fishermen want their share as well. Each country has initiated fishing seasons, periodic bans, and limits on sizes of catches to support sustainable harvesting, but these are not harmonized and often conflict. Agreement between any two parties is awaiting resolution of their particular territorial disputes, a distant prospect at best.

A further point is that fishermen can be a rough lot, with little regard for the rules and high respect for easy money. A case in point is the landing of Hong Kong-origin protestors on Japan-administered Senkaku territory several weeks ago. Despite the physical obstruction attempted by two Japanese coast guard vessels, the fishermen brought the protestors close enough to swim to shore for a few thousand dollars in payment. The repercussions are still ringing in official protests back and forth. Greater control of the fishing fleets, with effective sanctions on misbehavior under rules agreed upon in common, is a more achievable and responsible goal.

Estimates of the reserves of oil and gas in the South China Sea, meanwhile, range from China’s 17.7 billion barrels, larger than Kuwait’s reserves, to as little as 1.7 million potential barrels. The temptations to grab the resources are great, but the payoff in the end may be small.

A strong case can be made that the starting gun in the new dash for petroleum and natural gas in the South China Sea was fired not by China, but by Vietnam, which authorized drilling in disputed blocks in 2006. China and the Philippines have now put blocks up for bids in other contested waters, for fear of losing their access to the resources and probably for fear of the reactions of their publics to not protecting their “rightful claims.” Vietnam has bolstered its GDP with the 7,000 barrels per day it is producing, and the others are envious.

Similarly, much has been made of China’s recent establishment of the Sansha municipality administration and the concomitant establishment of a military garrison in the areas of the South China Sea that China controls. But China’s actions, which have been primarily paper exercises and not changes in the existing conditions, were a direct legal and rhetorical response to Vietnam’s passage of a “law of the sea” in June that prescribed a similar administrative structure over the same disputed territories. This stimulus and response cycle was complicated when the deputy press spokesman at the U.S. State Department issued an official denunciation of China’s moves in July, while failing to mention Vietnam’s previous steps.

The disputes between China and Japan, and between Japan and South Korea, also involve fears of losing access to energy resources, though not as immediately as in the South China Sea. Rivalry over access to fisheries is a driver of the tensions there.

Now is a good time for diplomats to step forward with proposals for renewing a moratorium on drilling in disputed waters in the absence of a resource-sharing formula. Possibly a troika of Southeast Asian foreign ministers, representing capitals that are both close and not so close to China, could shuttle among the disputants to seek such a formula. The United States at this point probably should not be in the lead, but it should voice strong support for this sort of process, offer technical support, and return to the principle of evenhandedness.

In parallel, a nation that is not a party to these regional disputes can offer good offices toward a harmonized set of rules on fishing with appropriate enforcement mechanisms that will help to sustain and apportion access to marine products over time. Australia comes to mind, perhaps together with another country with a stake in the world’s fisheries and experience in managing them, such as Norway. Fish do not carry passports and the whole world has an interest in their sustainability. And, again, Washington’s support and technical assistance could make a major contribution to managing the escalation of the contest for resources.

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Topics: Asia • China • Japan • South Korea • United States

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. svpyadav

    Respected Mr. Douglos Paul Garu,
    In my verdict,
    Maritime conflicts came from China, Because, China having so many Naval Basis and much of Budget spend for Naval, and China seeks Dictatory ship on Maritime levels in Asia, that why Maritime conflicts arising.

    September 7, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
    • John

      Can you name these "Naval Basis" that China has that are not on Chinese soil?

      September 7, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
      • Henry

        Of course he can't John, simply because they do not exist in any way, shape or form. He's just falling for that right-wing propaganda coming out of Washington D.C. The only way that we can avoid trouble over there is to just simply mind our own business!!!

        September 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
      • Henry

        Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark/ Willie12345/KillerO'Bama/Patrick-2/USMC Forever

        You cannot have Patrick or Henry, those are our names and you cannot have them. You can have all the other names but not Patrick or Henry.
        You could steal them to make moronic comments as you have the past year or you could use your own stupid name/s.

        September 7, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
      • Frank Robinson


        September 7, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Ketchup

      hohumm...another Hiltler and Napaleon.

      September 11, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  2. Shining Lights

    How to advoid maritime conflict in Asia? Keep the US OUT OF IT! Seriously your country's government like s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g everyone over, US citizen or NOT!

    September 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      Thank you, Shining Lights. How true that is!

      September 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • Geokaz

      I´m agree but the mediation is necessary, otherwise may terminate in something we all ll regret

      September 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • Ketchup

      my solution is China should mind their own country and stay there just like before! People of China, wake up! I know u also want peace and u dont want to see your country destroyed. Who wants war by the way...Only the greedy and obnoxious humanoids.

      September 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  3. Kailim

    Douglas Paal,

    You are insulting not only the fishmen, but the majority of Hong Kong people. The pure motive is driven by patriotic heart, not by a few thousand dollars.

    September 8, 2012 at 2:16 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    The ever growing self-assertiveness of the nations involved in the maritime conflicts is also one of the many reasons for the tensions. Two decades ago they were insignificant. With the rise of China and their improving economies, they become wary of their interests and vulnerabilities. No doubt the resources in the South China play a role as well.
    Vietnam is one of Sout Asia's fastest growing economies and hungry for resources.
    The Philippines, once boasted one of the region's best-performing economies, is saddled with a large national debt. The idea of gaining revenues from the resources in the South China Sea is lucrative.
    Malaysia has also one of the region's most vibrant economies and want to defend their interests.
    Brunie' immense wealth derives from oil and gas exports, yet reserves are dwindling. There Brunei is keen on getting its shares of resources.

    September 8, 2012 at 4:56 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: THEREFORE Brunei is keen on.......

      September 8, 2012 at 4:57 am | Reply
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    I do not even know how I ended up right here, however I believed this post used to be great. I don't realize who you might be but definitely you're going to a well-known blogger if you happen to are not already. Cheers!

    September 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  6. lee

    The USA should stop exploiting south China sea dispute and stay away from it . The role of the USA is actually reason of why tension is increased .

    September 9, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • sam

      How true that rings, lee. Thank you.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:09 am | Reply
    • Ketchup

      According to the heavenly stars, China belongs to the Philippines! :))

      September 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  7. 200 mile EEZ

    China must stop building barracks in other countries EEZ like mischief reef and vietnam paracel islands. Free Tibet. They should have lease them. China is grabbing territory. Other: China is killing other countries product through imitation and selling these products much less then the actual material, labor, and shipping cost put into it.

    Buy locally improve your economy and help create jobs locally.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  8. Ketchup

    Chinese gov't should learn how to respect other Asian nations. They just cant steal islands belonging to other countries! China land is big enough, dont be too greedy! if you want to become a super power, well not in that way. you are just starting to build your country and for the sake of your citizens, dont boast your nuclear power and underground military hide away, dont let ur people die in war coz u still need your people to build your country. And PLS stop brain washing your own people too.
    Be contented with what you have.

    September 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  9. Dat Nguyen

    China is a pirate of islands from other countries, specially to Vietnam. Go to Hainan!!! No one likes Pirate.

    September 16, 2012 at 2:31 am | Reply
    • CowBB

      China is brutal commie, we democratic.

      September 21, 2012 at 7:08 am | Reply
  10. Quy

    Here are the simple messages to the chinese men.
    1)You should learn to live in peace and harmony with your neighboring countries.
    2) You should give respects to others before you receive respects from others.
    3) You should learn the past lessons from your histories between Viet Nam and china that though Viet Nam has been repeatedly invaded by your blood-thirsty leaders; yet, Viet Nam still stands and We ,the Vietnamese People both in Viet Nam and around the world, will not tolerate this kind of aggressive, Hitler-like behaviors of your race. We will follow our many of our Heroes in the past footsteps that we will teach you the kind of lessons you and your ancestors tasted in the past. In case you are intentionally forgetting your histories; let's us help you to remember the one word "DEFEAT" which you and your ancestors are very familiar with!!!!

    September 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  11. Tyrone Hanry

    Fenugreek has been used either short-term to boost milk supply or long-term to augment supply and/or pumping yields. There are no studies indicating problems with long-term usage. Per Kathleen Huggins “Most mothers have found that the herb can be discontinued once milk production is stimulated to an appropriate level. Adequate production is usually maintained as long as sufficient breast stimulation and emptying continues” ..'"'

    So long

    June 20, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply

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