Maritime territorial disputes increasingly threaten the peace and stability of East Asia. Currently three areas of maritime East Asia involve the most consequential disputes: in the South China Sea between China (and Taiwan in this case) and four of its neighbors; in the East China Sea between China (and Taiwan) and Japan; and in the Sea of Japan between Korea and Japan. The root causes of East Asian maritime territorial disputes differ somewhat between areas and claimants, but all include a combination of substantive issues such as access to fisheries and undersea oil and gas deposits, conflicting interpretations of maritime law and even conflicting principles for asserting claims, the desire to correct past injuries to national pride and interests, and geopolitics. More broadly, maritime territorial disputes are the product of a shrinking world and the commodification of natural resources that have ever increasing value because of growing demand and supply imbalances.
This report briefly surveys disputes in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, but focuses primarily on those in the South China Sea. Both of the former are contentious potential flashpoints, and are currently at an abnormally high level of intensity and acrimony. The Sea of Japan dispute involves two US treaty allies and a serious incident would greatly complicate US relations with both, while a serious incident in the East China Sea might cause Japan to request US military assistance against China under the terms of their mutual defense treaty. Still, the islands are not likely to change hands and if historically-rooted nationalistic passions could somehow be dissipated the disputes could be resolved by third party arbitration or cooperative development agreements.
The South China Sea dispute, on the other hand, poses a greater long-term challenge to regional stability. The number of claimants and disputes are far higher, the resources at stake are expansive, and it poses the most direct challenge to US interests from the combination of China’s rising power and assertiveness in the region. Though the recent events in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan disputes are troubling, the disputes themselves and the ramifications of possible resolution are still largely couched in the confines of prevailing international maritime law. China’s expansive claim to the South China Sea and the ways in which it tries to enforce it, however, are often far cry from the rules established in UNCLOS and embraced by the international community at large. It is therefore unsurprising that the South China Sea has led to some of the most bitter statements and rebukes between China and the United States in recent months, as well as the unprecedented failure of ASEAN to issue a final communique at the annual foreign ministers’ meeting this year.
This paper is currently a working draft. Appendix II, by Stimson Senior Associate Yuki Tatsumi, addresses the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, primarily from a Japanese perspective. Read More>>