Shadow Government

Squandering opportunity on Mischief Reef

Incredibly, territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over uninhabited islands threaten to become a flashpoint threatening peace in East Asia. While tensions have since cooled a bit, the Economist recently warned that "China and Japan are sliding towards war." Last August, large, angry, and violent protests broke out in dozens of Chinese cities against a decision by the Japanese government to buy several of the disputed islands (called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China) from a Japanese private citizen. Again this month, China sortied aircraft and ships near the islands, and Japan scrambled fighters in response.

Moreover, this is not China's only maritime territorial dispute.  In the South China Sea, China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam pursue conflicting claims among the uninhabited shoals, islets, and atolls comprising Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel and Spratly Islands (including Mishief Reef). This is not a bloodless issue. In 1988, more than 70 Vietnamese sailors died in a naval clash with China near Johnson South Reef. Since then, China and the ASEAN states issued a 2002 joint declaration pledging not to use force to resolve their disputes and to avoid actions that would escalate them. However, no progress has been made toward settling the underlying disagreements, and the declaration was violated almost immediately.

Because of the United States's bilateral defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines, we could be drawn into a conflict we do not seek. Moreover, we have an enormous stake in continued economic growth and prosperity in East Asia, which depends on peace. 

What is behind the strong passions surrounding groups of uninhibited rocks whose total land mass is less than five square miles? Fishing rights are at stake -- and a cod war is not unprecedented -- but it would hardly seem worth the risk between states whose annual trade stands at three quarters of a trillion dollars.

Oil and gas wealth is a stronger motivation. No one yet knows the extent of the resources buried beneath the East and South China Seas (in part because their ownership remains in dispute), but if Europe's North Sea serves as a fair precedent, they could be worth trillions of dollars. 

Finally, nationalism compounds the problem. Unlike Europe, in East Asia, the wounds of World War II remain unhealed. Diplomatic rows or even riots are periodically caused by disputes over history text books or visits by politicians to shrines for dead military leaders.  Hence, the explosive anger last autumn causing protestors to attack Japanese cars and sushi restaurants, although they were owned by fellow Chinese citizens. 

How to head off a potentially catastrophic confrontation?  Five ideas will help.

First, all states must recognize that no single state can impose a solution, and every state exercises effective veto over exploitation of energy resources. A deep water oil rig can cost up to $600 million, yet can be sunk by a $20 million patrol boat. No commercial oil company, investor, or insurer would risk such a costly and vulnerable piece of equipment in a contested region where hostilities might erupt. Thus, East Asian nations effectively have a choice between continuing to wrangle over natural resources with no production, or reaching an agreement to divide the resources and jointly benefit from them. 

Second, all states in the region would do well to bear in mind that despite occasional nationalistic rhetoric, this is an economic question. These barren islands are not like the   West Bank or the Balkans, where centuries of human history and intermingled populations complicate the division of land. No country's national heritage is at stake in this question -- only economic benefits that cannot be exploited in the absence of an agreement. Therefore, all governments would do well to tone down their rhetoric about national rights and core interests in discussing the disputed maritime territories. Inflaming nationalist tendencies among citizens will make solving the problem more difficult, not less so.

Third, the disputants should accept that these matters cannot be settled solely by legal arguments or in court. Claims and counterclaims, along with contradictory old maps and sea charts, abound. Asserting that one interpretation of proper title to a territory is "indisputable" is pointless when other nations claim an equally "indisputable" title. Disagreements among nation states -- except in narrowly defined areas in which they offer prior agreement to accept external dispute resolution, e.g. the World Trade Organization -- are political matters and must be resolved by diplomacy and agreement, though perhaps aided by legal tools. 

Fourth, in contemplating ways to resolve this matter, the states involved should look to earlier precedents. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands used a combination of a ruling by the International Court of Justice and subsequent negotiations to resolve conflicting claims to North Sea continental shelf resources. The parties entered the negotiations realizing that no single state could claim the lion's share of the benefits, and that resolving the matter to allow oil exploration to move ahead was in all parties' interests. 

Harvard Professor Richard N. Cooper, observes that the neutral zone shared by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia may also serve as a precedent for resolving the East Asia maritime territorial disputes. Without resolving their disputed border, the two countries agreed to share the wealth from oil produced in the zone, which was created in 1922. Today, over 650,000 barrels per day are pumped from the region to both countries' great benefit.

Fifth, the countries of East Asia should begin to heal the wounds of World War II. For example, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States could agree on principles to guide their interaction, including, among other things, peaceful resolution of territorial disputes and joint development and management of regional resources (such as fisheries), and follow up with separate annual meetings of foreign, economic, and defense ministers to implement them.

Military conflict over the maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas would be a senseless waste. China may see a tactical advantage in waiting to address these issues as its economic and military power grows, but allowing the disputes to fester risks the outbreak of war and squanders the opportunity to develop potentially rich natural resources. It also prevents nations in the region from working effectively together to solve other pressing problems. The bright prospects for peace and prosperity in East Asia should not be allowed to founder on Mischief Reef.

YOMIURI SHIMBUN/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

The 'Obama Doctrine': An unsentimental appraisal

The United States, protected by two oceans and with a global range of allies and interests, has found for a century that it must go abroad to shape and lead a dangerous world. But President Barack Obama seems, in some respects, to prefer to stay home. Whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy was maximalist, Obama's is minimalist. A foreign policy assessment only halfway through his presidency is no doubt unfair -- he may yet vanquish Iran's nuclear weapons program, put an overdue end to Syria's bloody civil war, stand down Chinese aggression in Asian waters, and oversee a historic wave of trade liberalization. But he has not yet. The Obama Doctrine appears less ambitious. Here are its elements to date:

Nation-building at home, not abroad. President Obama took office so determined to "end the war" in Iraq that he failed to negotiate a follow-on force to sustain stability there. In Afghanistan, after a decade of allied sacrifice and real gains, the administration astonishingly is now flirting with the "zero option" of leaving no U.S. forces there after 2014. Obama prefers to focus on "nation-building at home." But will he be able to if Iraq or Afghanistan backslide into civil war, or if Syria's violent spillover engulfs the Middle East? For all the tactical efficacy of drone strikes, the United States cannot possibly defeat terrorism without at the same time working to build free and prosperous societies in countries, like Pakistan, that nurture it.

Resisting transformationalism. Notwithstanding excellent speeches about bridging the gap between America and the Muslim world, President Obama has treaded more gingerly in his policies. He did not support Iran's Green Revolution and has stood back from the opportunities inherent in the Arab Awakening, allowing post-strongman societies in the Middle East to devise new political arrangements for themselves. Obama has a nuanced understanding of the limits of power and the tragedy of international politics from his oft-cited reading of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the greater tragedy may be declining to use America's great power to more actively support Arab and Iranian liberals desperate to build free societies against fierce opposition from Islamist and ancien regime forces.

 "Leading from behind." In Libya, Syria, and now Mali, we have seen Washington's European allies push for, or carry out themselves, armed interventions to uphold human rights and regional stability. Americans are used to being the hawks in world affairs, and Europeans the doves -- but those roles have reversed under President Obama. This turns the transatlantic bargain on its head: Europeans now seem more concerned with policing out-of-area crises, with America playing a supporting role. But is such passivity really in Washington's interest? Can Europe really lead in matters of war and peace without America at the front? 

Rebalancing American power toward Asia. America's "pivot" has been welcomed in much of Asia and across party lines in Washington. But as Joseph Nye argues, the United States has been pivoting to Asia since the end of the Cold War. It would be more accurate to say that Obama himself pivoted away from seeking a G-2 condominium with China to balancing against it. His administration's support for liberalization in Myanmar has been historic -- but senior U.S. officials say the process is driven by Naypyidaw, not Washington.  It is also unclear if the pivot is more than a rhetorical policy; President Obama has already authorized defense budget cuts of nearly $900 million and supports more.

Unsentimentality towards allies. Even amidst the rebalance, Asian allies like Japan and friends like India have felt neglected by this American president. Similarly, Obama's attention to the transatlantic relationship seems inversely proportional to the affection Europeans feel for him. Despite significant defense transfers, the U.S. administration appears as concerned with preventing Israel from attacking Iran as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Hard-headedness is a virtue in international relations. America's allies, however, expect it to be directed more at U.S. adversaries than at our friends.

A trade policy high in ambition, if not results. President Obama commendably seeks to double U.S. exports as part of an economic recovery program. His administration has sketched out a transformative vision of an Atlantic marketplace and a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But movement on both has been very slow -- at least as slow as the three years it took for Obama to send Congress free trade agreements, with Korea and other countries, negotiated by his predecessor. The potential for an ambitious trade opening is promising -- if Obama can deliver.

President John F. Kennedy said America would pay any price and bear any burden in support of liberty. President Obama has made clear that under his leadership, America will not do quite so much. But strategic minimalism and a focus on the domestic means problems abroad only grow, inevitably pulling America into crises on less favorable terms. The world looks to America for strategic initiative to solve its thorniest problems. At the moment, demand for this leadership is greater than supply.

This article appeared over the weekend in the special Security Times edition prepared for the Munich Conference on Security Policy and published by Germany's Times Media. The paper as it appeared in print is available at www.times-media.de .  

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