When President Obama met China’s former president, Hu Jintao, during the first year of his first term, they probably didn’t talk about tensions in the East and South China Seas. Now, when Obama meets Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, in the first year of his second term, maritime issues are likely to be on the agenda – because they could foster conflicts that drive the United States and China further apart than they already are.
Maritime tensions stem from several, linked disputes that are cumulative in their effect (for more, see my book, The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations). The principal driver is the quest of all countries for natural resources to fuel economic growth, in this case oil, natural gas, minerals, and fish. To secure those resources in the maritime domain, the countries concerned—China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei—claim various rocks and islands in the East and South China Seas, and the broadest exclusive rights to exploit fish in the sea and hydrocarbons and minerals in the seabed. Each creates a self-serving version of history and international law to fortify its case. Each acts diplomatically and in other ways to assert its claims before the world. Nationalistic publics push governments to be firm in protecting these national interests.
China claims the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands northwest of Taiwan and the Paracel and Spratley Islands in the South China Sea (and it has not denied a claim to the waters of the South China Sea as well). The United States, of course, has no territorial or resource claims in East Asia, but we do care a lot about how claimant countries assert and enforce their claims. For one thing, we have defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines, and so might get drawn into a conflict between either of them and China. Washington has stated explicitly, for example, that the Senkaku/Diaoyus fall within the territorial scope of our treaty with Japan. Second, we have interest in the consistent application of international law to the maritime domain (regrettably, the United States has not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, even though we adhere to it). And we have an interest in the peace and prosperity that flows from multilateral stewardship of the maritime commons.
What makes the rivalry in the East and South China Seas so dangerous, and where the interaction between Presidents Xi and Obama could have a salutary effect, is the rather aggressive way in which maritime agencies of various countries conduct operations to protect and assert territorial and resource claims. China is probably the most at fault in this regard, but others are not without blame. And China has begun a pattern of exploit actions by others to define a new status quo, whether it is with the Diaoyu/Senkakus or the Spratleys. When a large number of vessels from contending countries operate in close proximity, accidents will happen. And when some of those vessels are armed, the consequences of accidents are compounded. To make matters worse, no country in East Asia has good crises management capabilities, particularly when nationalistic publics are in full fury.
It will be impossible in the short- or medium-term to resolve all aspects of theses maritime disputes (particularly territorial differences). The parties concerned should therefore start by addressing the aspect that is easiest to bring under control, and that is how maritime agencies operate in close proximity. There are concrete crisis-avoidance and risk-reduction measures that might be applied and adapted to the East and South China Seas through discussions between China and its neighbors. But Presidents Obama and Xi have an opportunity to recognize together the danger that these small disputes pose to the interests of their two countries and the entire East Asian region. They can set a tone and create a context for reducing the danger most immediately at hand, which will then permit a shift to more cooperative approaches.