The Unresolved Maritime Boundary Dispute In The East And South China Seas

For the ninth year in a row, the Japanese Defense Ministry has requested for an increased defense budget, hitting an all-time high at $52 billion for planned military expenditures. The 2020 budget will see an 8.3% increase relative to 2019’s, according to CNN. Japan’s fast-track pace to increase the budget can be attributed to its neighbouring nations’ respective budget increases—particularly, China and North Korea. These countries have seen even larger increases in their defense budgets over the past couple decades. Accredited by CNN, reports show China has experienced a 10% annual increase in its military budget over the previous two decades, receiving $178 billion in 2020 alone. According to Yonhap News Agency, North Korea was recognized as the top nation to have the largest portion of its GDP go towards military expenditures in 2020. As Japan undergoes maritime territory disputes with these nations, recognition of the potential threats these countries pose has encouraged Japan’s exponential military expenditures over recent years.

In an interview with CNN earlier this year, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono spoke about Japan’s concerns regarding North Korea, saying “We are not sure what Kim Jong-un is thinking. So, it is more difficult to predict what North Korea is trying to do, so we need to be on alert 24/7.” The skeptical regard for Kim Jong-un’s future military plans concerning Japan does not stop there. The current leading concern involves Japan and China’s disputes over a handful of islands in the East China Sea, which give way for potential future escalations between the two nations.

Located about 1,000 miles off the coast of Japan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are proclaimed by Japan’s and China’s government to be part of their own territory. According to international law, the islands belong to Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. Despite this, tensions rose drastically over 100 days this past year when Chinese military ships unceasingly bordered the islands’ surrounding waters. The long-lasting presence came with worries for potential moves on Beijing’s part, such as military action and self-declared sovereignty over the islands. However, by July 2020, the ships retreated.

The East and South China Seas have been a prolonged trigger point for high tensions between their several bordering nations. The main cause for the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes can be partially explained by unclear guidelines in related treaties. In 1951, the signing of the Treaty of Peace brought an official end to World War II, along with an agreement for how territory would be allocated to the associated parties. The treaty only ambiguously stated where the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands would go, and all nations since have decided the islands would be distributed to Okinawa. Likewise, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) dictates how shared bodies of water are geographically dispersed among countries. Established in 1982, it comes with specific guidelines which outline the maritime boundaries and areas of resource exploitation in one body of water, for each country, using nautical miles and reference baseline points along the coast.

The biggest issue pertaining to UNCLOS is that it does not recognize the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as masses of land. Article 121(3) assumes the islands as only rocks, and therefore, do not receive the same significant degree of territorial boundaries over the East China Sea as actual proclaimed islands do. The lack of clarity for the conditions of the dispute create more barriers for resolving this disagreement.

It is important for these unresolved tensions to be addressed, as they won’t disappear on their own. The islands were first recognized as having significance in 1969, when the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ESCAP) released a report that mentioned the dense “energy deposits” surrounding the islands. Earlier this year, the Council on Foreign Relations released a statement confirming these claims are still true. The statement mentions the numerous possible uses of the islands, detailing that “[they] have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are near prominent shipping routes, and are surrounded by rich fishing areas.” The East China Sea has many areas with natural resource reservoirs, and as described, the islands come with various economic advantages that are of interest to both China and Japan. If left unaddressed, the debate for who lays claim over the islands will only intensify with time.

Alongside this, UNCLOS guidelines do little to stop China from working around the law. As of now, China believes it holds more than 1.3 million square miles of territory within the South China Sea. This claim was made after China began transforming reefs into artificial islands to expand its territorial claims. As noted by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China has established seven total artificial islands that are declared as 3,200 acres of land, giving access to many more miles of sea. Some of these boundaries intersect with other nations’ exclusive economic zones and have led to more disputes. At the beginning of 2020, Chinese coast guard vessels were found trespassing in Indonesian water around the Natuna Islands, and after confrontation, claimed to be within China’s borders. Since the incident, Indonesia has worked to increase patrols in the area. Several incidents with other countries have experienced similar experiences, however, there has been little discussion throughout the region regarding these events and possible resolutions.

Agreed upon calls-to-action are needed now more than ever, since Japan only seeks to increase their military budget as a main response in the face of looming threats. A clear solution may be for a rewritten and revised UNCLOS. The South China Sea itself is currently divided between six nations. More detailed standards must be laid out to determine how this arm of the western Pacific Ocean will be divided, and all discussions must include every associating nation. The nonmandatory communication between these countries, and the ability to make independent declarations concerning the shared seas, is what sparks such international disagreements.

On June 22, 2020, Japan passed a bill concerning the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, where the country asserted their government as the official holder administering the islands and changed the island’s name to “Tonoshiro Senkaku.” This bill flared tension in Beijing and did not involve China in any decision-making. To bring awareness to the steps individual countries are taking concerning the South and East China Seas, an alternative to performing separate actions would instead to only allow for joint agreements to take place. This would only include China and Japan, but many other neighbouring countries as well. Taiwan has also made claims of these islands being their own since the islands sit about 350 kilometers off Taiwan’s northeastern coast. The recognition of other countries’ objections and addressing them could significantly improve relations here, but not enough action has taken place so far to allow for this.

There is also the matter of tackling the threat the Japan and United States mutual defense treaty holds over the other nations in the region. In 1960, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security was signed between the two governments. The pact allows for the promise of one nation’s military aid if the other nation is met with an armed attack. During the recent Chinese occupation in the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the fear of potential U.S. involvement and military action further heightened tensions. If the matter at hand requires the U.S. to engage in combat, we may see the dispute going beyond the western Pacific Ocean and bringing about a global crisis. This pact has also frequently encouraged Japan’s military budget to increase. President Trump’s administration often insisted for the Japanese government to further build its army and weapons. Looking into the future, it cannot be clear if President-elect Biden will continue these controversial inducements. For solutions to be introduced, this alliance must be addressed in some way, as it only allows for foreboding Japan-U.S. joint military action to hang as a threat.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and their surrounding waters have a history of inhabitants from both China and Japan which goes back hundreds of years, which is also why they are referred to with different names. Moving forward, if the world is to avoid any more conflicts reflecting these economic and territorial disagreements, it is important to understand the drivers of nationalistic interests. Encouraging discussions of history and culture allows for open-minded answers to regional and international issues. In order to do this, individuals should not be afraid to bring awareness to the root causes of those problems and recognize the value that comes with cooperative and passive discussions.


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