Bridges for Asia's island disputes

As China asserts stronger claims over its coastal seas, the US and others need to be more proactive in engaging Beijing. A joint research trip in the South China Sea hints at one way.

Vietnamese fishing boats are seen in the Spratly archipelago Jan. 5. A group of anti-China protesters plan to gather on March 14 to mark the anniversary of the 1988 naval battle between China and Vietnam near Spratly reefs, in which 64 Vietnamese sailors were killed. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have previously complained about Chinese activity and even harassment in contested parts of the South China Sea.

If peace is not merely the absence of war, take note of this news: A research ship will depart Hong Kong on Tuesday with 24 scientists from China and the United States onboard. Its mission? To drill into the seabed of the South China Sea and gather geological information.

The joint scientific expedition will provide the subseafloor data that could lead to cooperative development of the abundant oil and gas buried under those hotly disputed waters. For now, the trip is a positive symbol of what should be happening in East Asia – a search for overlapping interests where now there are big differences.

The expedition, funded largely by China but taking place aboard a US-operated vessel called the JOIDES Resolution, is the kind of goodwill step needed to cool regional tensions. China is making aggressive claims to dozens of small islands, causing the US and others to merely react, beef up their militaries, strengthen trade and defense alliances, and allow the various disputes to drift. Japan even warns that its relationship with China is similar to tensions between nations in Europe before World War I.

Of late, China has taken the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines while sending planes and ships closer to the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu in China). In violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Beijing also claims ownership over vast portions of the seas and airspace off its coast. Such claims could bring it into conflict with countries from South Korea to Malaysia.

Various ways have been proposed to engage China proactively as a way to cool its maritime expansion. The US seeks regular military-to-military contact to avoid any incident at sea blowing up into a crisis, such as the near-miss of a Chinese Navy vessel and the USS Cowpens last month. Some experts propose a multilateral meeting to settle all the island disputes. Over the past decade, Southeast Asian nations have tried to get China to abide by a code of conduct in the South China Sea disputes – with little success.

One hope is to bring China into joint development of the resources in disputed areas. China has tried to negotiate such pacts in the past, such as with Japan on fisheries. And even now, it is proposing bilateral deals with individual neighbors. But the effort is sometimes seen more as divisive or inconsistent than a signal of setting aside sovereignty claims over islands.

Take China’s talks with Vietnam on joint development of offshore hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Tonkin. On Jan. 1, China shocked Vietnam and other neighbors with a new law that declares most of the South China Sea to be out of bounds to foreign fishing vessels. The US called the move “provocative and potentially dangerous.”

Such actions by Beijing are mostly incremental for now – on purpose. China seeks a slow acceptance of “facts on the water” without posing the risk of war. To counter this salami-slicing approach, the best response by the US and its allies is to find ways to engage China constructively in the region.

President Obama, who promised a “rebalancing” of US global strategy toward Asia, needs to lay out a definitive white paper along these lines. Joint development of ocean resources, if done well, is one possible path. It signals a pause in territorial disputes and puts regional economics ahead of assertive nationalism, much like the regional trade pact now in the works for Asia and the US.

One mission like that on the JOIDES Resolution isn’t a big breakthrough on such cooperation. But at least it’s a start.

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