Part 1: The nature of sovereignty disputes in the East Sea
The recent sovereignty-related disputes between China and Vietnam, the Philippines at the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of these countries have created the concern over an arms race in the region, and pointed out the necessity of an effective regional security mechanism to prevent this danger.
Delimitation of territorial waters under the UNCLOS and China’s groundless claims.
I think the danger of an armed race of small countries in the region will not be the main trend. The main trend will be China’s use of its outstanding soft power and economic power to hold up small countries in bilateral relations, in order to gradually set up its de factor control rights in the waters of other countries. Through this, it will create the real “peaceful rising”, without using a single bullet.
If it is right, it would be difficult to have a security mechanism or a joint declaration between China and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), for example the Code of Conducts in the East Sea (COC), that can reverse the ongoing trend. On the other hand, that trend can cause a bilateral military conflict, which may escalate to become a regional conflict. Once a regional conflict occurs, it will not be helpful for any one, including China.
An international, multilateral security mechanism, which is combined with bilateral ties, is the only solution to prevent the above risk, for the stability, prosperity of the region and the world order.
The nature of the East Sea disputes
If we look at the map of the East Sea, the territorial water sovereignty of each country and the international maritime order have been clearly clarified under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS).
But why China dares to put forward the U-shape line to claim up to 80 percent of the East Sea – which could only happen if the wheel of history have reversed to the time before the World War II; when Vietnam, the Philippines and the countries around the East Sea were not recognized as independent nations and when Vietnamese, Filipino and other peoples did not have independence and freedom?
Sovereignty of a country must be understood in two ways: 1) the recognition of the international community, accompanied with international conventions on sovereignty. 2) the ability of state to defend the country’s sovereignty, most importantly the ability to ensure security and defense, the rights of its people to explore natural resources and live in the areas where their ancestors lived for thousands of years, even on the mainland or islands and waters.
When this way of approach to the role of the state in defending national sovereignty is applied in ensuring international maritime order, superpowers like the US and Japan must play the role of “super-states”. They ensure the rights of freedom of navigation and security in international waters. In some special cases for example, the joint efforts against Somali pirates, the cooperation among big countries to maintain international maritime security is a solution.
If in a country, expenses for maintaining security and sovereignty in its territorial waters is funded through taxes, the role of guaranteeing security and order in the international waters of super powers is funded through the interests from the freedom of navigation and international trade as well as cooperation in exploring natural resources in the ocean (oil, fish, etc.) with the agreement of host countries.
Therefore, under international viewpoint, the sovereignty on exploring natural resources (fish, oil) in the EEZ of each country is a form of private goods, which belongs to the ownership of that country, which is recognized by international conventions and it takes effect thanks to the role of defending the inviolable sovereignty of that country.
Security and free navigation on international maritime routes, on the other side, is public goods because ships of not only the host country but of all countries can freely travel and are protected on international maritime routes. This is clearly different from the rights to net fish or explore oil on the continental shelf of an independent country, in the meaning that other countries, despite their power, have no right to violate the natural resources belonging to an independent country though this country is much smaller and weaker than them.
This is the standard recognized by the whole world, but it must be protected by the state of the country with sovereignty. On the contrary, a big country that uses power, despite soft or hard power, to infringe the sovereignty of a small country, that appropriation can never build the foundation for sovereignty for the robbery country, as the history has proven many times.
The East Sea disputes are not bilateral matter
The national sovereignty, thus, does not stand alone. With the inherent non-proportion of economic and military power among countries, economic, politic and military relations between small and big countries, the sharing of appropriate strategies with international conventions and law will create official or unofficial alliances. The powers of alliances make an effective determent against an invasion of any big country against another country which is weaker in both economics and military.
Once an alliance weakens, the balance of regional and international balance will change, owning to the appearance of “gaps of power”. Nevertheless, the change of world order (and the emergence of the sponsor for the newly rising order) can become a global trend or not highly depends on the justice of that process. Once the injustice infringes, extreme fascism, sooner or later, that unjust ambition will be ruined.
The period of 2008-2010 witnessed the global crisis, which started from the US and spread to Western European countries. The crisis brought about two corollaries.
Firstly, the US, under the great pressure of debts after the two anti-terrorist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and economic crisis, has weakened in terms of using the soft power to maintain the international order in strategic waters, but it would be very costly for the US if conflicts happen there. The case in which Chinese ships provoked the US’ USNS Impeccable ship near the Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracel Islands) is an example.
Secondly, the US’ weakening after the crisis, plus the rising of China has made changes to international commercial and investment flows towards encouraging countries in the periphery to be closer together and depend more on China’s economic and soft power. On the other words, the current alliances become weaker. Along with it, the ability to defend sovereignty of state members of alliances like APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) or ASEAN has declined.
In that context, China has two options: 1) Cooperating with other super powers in the world, led by the US, to supply goods for maintaining the international order, the stability and prosperity development based on cooperation and global trade; 2) replacing the US and the US’ strategic allies (West Europe and Japan) to set up the new world order and new military alliance headed by the US in order to force others to obey the new order.
In fact, China has chosen the second. This process began by trampling on the UNCLOS in order to turn the East Sea into its pond. It is uneasy for China to realize that ambition because: 1) it abolishes the sovereignty of countries around the East Sea and goes on the contrary with the trend of the time (the campaign to struggle for independence for nations after the fascism was defeated). 2) In the long run, it can make a bad precedent for appropriating the rights of free navigation and maritime safety on international sea routes. Other countries (except for China) will have to pay fees or be fined or banned from using international sea routes or air routes, which are controlled by China.
The key point here is the clear difference between international maritime routes and maritime routes in China’s waters. When politic or interest conflicts occur, China can use its control right to ban related countries from traveling in the East Sea, though in principle, China commits maintaining free navigation. This will not happen if China cannot impose its real control on the waters bordered by the U-shape line.
The sovereignty disputes in the East Sea are not a bilateral matter, but the issue of regional and international security. China understands it very clearly and China understands that the US, Japan, West Europe and other superpowers in the world, like Russia and India also know its plot.
This game shows adventure in the strategy that China is pursuing. Carefully analyzing that game will create international agreement to solve the East Sea disputes, which China makes up into “bilateral conflicts” on the “indisputable sovereignty” in which China is the victim.
Dr. Le Hong Nhat
(To be continued)