Monday, 21 April 2014

How to fix the Asia Pacific sea disputes

The world is a fluid and changeable place, but one thing is for certain: the Asia Pacific is the centre of gravity in an increasingly globalised system and will continue to be for at least the next century. Countries in the region feel a geopolitical change around the corner. That shift is already proving to be tough and dangerous, but the status quo does need changing - or at least updating for the new era.

A new report compiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA) paints in very sharp terms why the region needs a change of mindset.

Close to a quarter of the world’s liquid hydrocarbons are consumed by China, India, South Korea, and Japan. By 2030, 80% of China’s oil will come from the Middle East which will require the waters around the Asia Pacific to be calm and free for trade. India is expected to rely on the Middle East for 90% of its oil consumption.


Even greater amounts of fossil fuels are expected to be consumed in the region as the century rolls on. According to the report, China will account for 40% of growing consumption until 2025, at which point India will overtake. By 2025 India’s energy growth will increase to 132%, while China’s will increase by 71% and Russia’s by 21%.

What is happening in Asia with the belligerency over disputed islands and various shoals could be a result of nationalist ideals and reawakening power structures, but there is something else to the story as well. Many of the squabbles can be helpfully explained using these terms, but keeping the commercial waterways into and out of the Asia Pacific open is very motivating factor. Controlling them is not strictly necessary, but it has become part of every Asian country’s behavioural calculation.

Each nation fears being cut off from the global system by a blockade or arbitrary closing of the already very constricted waterways. Many see the contest as a zero-sum, I-win-you-lose sort of problem. There is little cooperation and almost no rules for international sealane dispute resolution.

China and Japan are slipping closer each week to a mishap in the East China Sea which could end in muzzle-flashes. South Korea and Japan have still not sorted out their own island issues. The Philippines are going through the motions of court action against China because of overlapping disputed economic zones. And Vietnam and China have not decided who will administer another series of islands between their two countries.

None of these nations are prepared to concede on any claims to sovereignty, rights to search for oil, or space to trawl for fish. All of them are building militaries to enforce those claims. It could simply be a matter of time before a simple case of mistaken identity escalates the situation irrevocably.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. As loudly proclaimed in the recent IEA report, the region is going to need more cooperation and less friction. Thankfully, there are a few historically-tested paths which might help mitigate the chances of a clash.

The first possibility is what China and Japan experimented with in the 1970s when Okinawa was returned to Japan after World War II. Some islets between China and Japan were not considered important enough for argument with both countries retaining sharing sovereignty over the islands. The status quo ensured that if the islands weren’t used for outright military purposes, then freedom of navigation was open to all shipping, regardless of nationality.

This is still a good solution to today’s simmering conflicts. The status quo needs to be updated for the 21st Century because the underpinning necessity of keeping the sealanes clear requires that no country has the ability to blockade. Perhaps the best course of action is the creation of some sort of maritime ecological preserve with shared governance. It might not be perfect, but at least it would allow for cooperative exploration of hydrocarbons and mutual teamwork for fishing.

The second step is to create a clear and decisive rule of law for the sea. If a mistake or miscalculation were to occur in the region, it would most likely be committed in the lower ranks of the various navies. This is the dangerous part.

While the top-level commanders talk to each other regularly, it is not clear what captains should do in a tense situation. Rules of engagement and standard operating procedures need to be formalised between the Asia Pacific nations. For instance, it is still not known how near submarines are allowed to shadow surface ships or how close aircraft can fly to each other.

To update this part of the status quo may require the creation of a sort of Asian NATO structure. Such an organisation would serve to homogenise the interactions between states - especially military interactions - and coordinate reactions to regional threats or ecological disasters. An Asian NATO would set understandable rules and create a centralised discussion platform where issues could be raised in a diplomatic setting.

The key will be in how quickly the various nations can understand the importance of not upturning the status quo without offering a workable solution in its place. It’s all very well that each nation wishes to protect its own interests, but in a region as interconnected as this, national interests overlap considerably and cooperation is far more important. Fixing things would be better than multiple competing air defence zones and jittery navies.

After all, as analyst Robert D. Kaplan warns, knowing what causes wars is not the same as sacrificing some portion of one’s own interests in order to prevent them. The answer to the broiling problems in the Asia Pacific will not be simple, but there are tried and tested processes which could be implemented and could uncover a more robust answer.

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