The world’s diplomatic attention has rightly been focused on ending the hot conflicts in the Middle East, from Libya to Syria to Yemen. Yet just as much attention is needed to prevent a cold conflict in Asia from turning hot. Since July 12, when an international tribunal ruled against China’s claims in the South China Sea, a number of Asian countries have moved to further strengthen their maritime security forces.
The Philippines, which won the tribunal case against China, has begun to take the first of 10 Coast Guard ships made in Japan. It may also buy a missile system to protect against further Chinese encroachment on its islands. Vietnam recently installed mobile rocket launchers in the Spratly Islands in response to China’s aggression. And Japan plans a surface-to-ship missile system to defend its Senkaku islands from Chinese vessels.
To add to the military escalation, China and Russia plan to hold joint naval exercises in the South China Sea.
As tensions rise over the competing claims of sovereignty on Asian seas, a number of diplomats and academics are looking for creative ways for these countries to focus on shared interests in their offshore waters. The joint use and management of ocean resources would be far better than war. And it might allow China to back down from its dubious claims to islands far from its shores without losing face.
The easiest and quickest path to such cooperation would be agreements on fishing. The ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague opened a door to this possibility. And both China and the Philippines have suggested they are open to it. (China consumes about a third of the world’s seafood.)
The idea of resolving Asia’s tense struggles over islands through joint resource development is not new. But it is more urgent than ever. With China due to host the next G-20 summit of large economies, the time is ripe to press for cooperation in Asia instead of letting the region become another hot conflict.