East-South China Seas, Islands – Solutions?

By Johan Galtung

Nanjing University Conference

A Chinese proverb: better than giving a starving person a fish is teaching her to fish. So, not only solutions but how to solve conflicts: in the East China Sea between China and Japan over Diaoyu-Senkaku and between Korea and Japan over Dockdo-Takeshima; and in the South China Sea between China-Taiwan and Philippines-Vietnam-Malaysia-Brunei over the Nansha-Spratly islands. However, China-Taiwan can here be seen as one party with the same claims, and China has agreed to deal with ASEAN-Association of Southeast Asian Nations collectively, not with only four of the ten member states bilaterally. In short: China vs ASEAN.

The goals in these bilateral conflicts–conflict=incompatible goals! – is state sovereign rights not over mainlands but is-lands – essentially over their EEZs, exclusive economic zones 200 nautical miles from the coast base–to exploit live and non-live resources; fish, hydrocarbons, minerals. And sovereignty over a 12-mile zone–with air space–excluding others, their shipping lanes and flights.

But, the island has to support human settlement, (“land dominates sea”). Most do not – they are even reefs (one has the iconic name “Mischief Reef”) – some underwater when the tide is high. Hence the planting of flags, stationing of troops, naval exercises to establish claims. Wikipedia lists occupation of 15 islands, 34 reefs and seven banks-shoals by the four parties (not by Brunei).

For most of history they were terra nullius, belonging to nobody. But with fish, resources and shipping ever more demanded and the UN Law of the Sea of 1982 even offering EEZs, claims flourish. Of two types: positive “this is ours”, and negative “it is not yours”.

Thus, as long as Diaoyu-Senkaku belonged to a private Japanese family it was essentially terra nullius; but in 2012 the Japanese government purchased the islands and they became state property. China reacted immediately. One solution: re-privatize the islands.

For bilateral conflicts peace theory offers five outcomes:

(1)-(2)–either mine or yours – is the typical state system outcome in sovereignty conflicts.

For that the states have two instruments:

military: by might, fight it out, the winner decides the outcome;

juridical: by right, decide by legal means who is right and who is not.

The two methods allocate all to one, nothing to the other, the loser.

(4)–compromise–is the outcome of the third instrument of the state:

diplomacy: by compromise (in-between), trading (you win that conflict, I the other), ambiguity (I interpret to my advantage, you to yours).

(3)-(5)—-neither-nor and both-and require another, rare, instrument:

creativity: by a new reality that accommodates all legitimate goals.

Important, but abstract: now from peace theory to peace practice.

In East China Sea unilateral possession leaves a festering wound. But compromises might work: dividing the island(s); time-sharing, 5-10 years each; or live resources to one, non-live to the other. Neither-nor worked for a long time, and might work again, as re-privatization.

Much more creative is both-and, shared ownership, also by an East Asian Community – the Chinas, Koreas and Japan – with a distribution profile for the proceeds like 40-45% to China, 40-45% to Japan or Korea, and 20-10% to the EAC. Such profiles would be heavily disputed, but transformation of the conflict to %s adding up to 100 should help.

But that vision is far from political reality when Japan reopens the traumas from 35 years colonial aggression against Korea and 15 years military aggression against China – with the Nanjing massacre. Hence, maybe first with Korea, inviting Japan to join when feeling ready.

In the South China Sea the both-and solution for the Spratleys would be ownership by an overarching China-ASEAN entity; with a more complex distribution profile. Several umbrellas exist, like Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. With and without the USA that in 2010 announced ‘strategic interest’ in the South China Sea, including free navy passage. That should be challenged and likened to free passage of slave ships and drug trade, except for self-defense in the 12-mile zone. For East Asia only.

China in 1955 claimed the Spratleys and “the whole of the South China Sea as Chinese territory based on its nine-dotted-line claim which encroaches into the territories claimed by other coastal states” (See Arujunan Narayanam in A Just World), and used force against Vietnam.

But China signed the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Joint Statement of Heads of States-Governments for peaceful settlement of disputes; and the 2002 Phnom Penh Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Points 5 and 6 mention trust, restraint and “settlement by juridical means”. But adjudicating ambiguous and contested history-geography may be [1] impossible and [2] undesirable, leading to nothing new.

From 500-1500 AD South China Sea was a Chinese lake used for the Silk Lane by ship, far more important than by road; then conquered by Portugal-England. A 500-year old claim, or longer, is not law. But UN accepted a 2000-year old claim by Israel–up to a point: 1967. The West had treated the Jews atrociously. And China atrociously.

China’s yin-yang both-and philosophy opened for communism and capitalism, for growth and distribution, and should easily accommodate sovereignty and shared sovereignty. Immensely creative Deng Xiaoping said: “Our generation is not wise enough /for the South China Sea/; the next generation will certainly be wiser”. That means this decade.

Noiseless electric scooters pass by, once a vision – today reality. So also one day an SCSC, a South China Sea Community by and for peace.

Originaly published here.

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