Sunday, August 21, 2011

Seeking a compromise in the Spratlys

During the Q&A at a forum on the Spratlys dispute in Toronto recently, a Filipino diplomat and former Consul General of the Philippine consulate in Toronto brought up the idea of a “sharing agreement” between the competing states as a possible solution to the current impasse in the South China Sea. Stressing that such agreement was within the realm of possibility, the diplomat referred to the example of the Ruhr Agreement which was adopted after the end of the Second World War in order to control the coal and steel industry in the Ruhr Area in West Germany.

The diplomat, however, failed to mention that the agreement was reached by the Allied powers as a condition for permitting the West Germans in establishing the Federal Republic of Germany. The agreement was signed by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Benelux countries.
Sculpture depicting hard life of coal miners in the Ruhr valley.
Photo  courtesy of silwittmann.
At the time, France was seriously concerned with keeping Germany weak and restricting its civilian industries of military potential. France wanted to place the coal-rich Ruhr area and the Rhineland under French control, or at a minimum, to internationalize them, that is, to subject the German coal and steel industry to an international authority led by the Allied powers.

The Ruhr valley became the centre of the German economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s because of the heavy demand for coal and steel. After 1973, however, Germany suffered from the global economic crisis with its soaring oil prices and persistent high unemployment, and the Ruhr region was the hardest hit. German coal became no longer competitive and the Ruhr steel industry went into sharp decline. The coal mines and hot metal furnaces that transformed the region into Europe's industrial engine a century ago have long since shut down, destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs.

I was struck by the diplomat’s comparison of the current stalemate in the Spratlys with a totally different Germany after it was defeated by the Allies during the Second World War. Finding no possible connection between the two, the diplomat perhaps was simply being tactful in offering a negotiated solution to the problem. In any case, his notion of a “shared agreement” is just right in the neighbourhood of possible options for settling the Spratlys dispute.

The complexities of overlapping claims and the Spratlys dispute’s long history are making the determination of the sovereignty question extremely difficult. Although the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows states to choose whatever means they wish to resolve their disputes, China and Vietnam appear not interested in bringing up the dispute to arbitration, presumably for fear of an unfavourable outcome to their claims. This led one observer to describe the current situation in the Spratlys as one of “leaking status quo” or an unstable “do nothing” approach.

But the current impasse is not desirable for all the competing states. By steadfastly insisting on their territorial sovereignty claims, claimant states are holding up the enormous potential that could be derived from exploration and exploitation of the natural wealth of Spratlys and its seabed and waters around it.

That is why the Timor Sea Treaty, which was the most recent example of a joint collaboration between two competing sovereignty claims over the resources of a continental shelf, is the closest model of conflict resolution that comes to mind.

The joint petroleum exploration of the Timor Sea by Australia and East Timor allows both countries to benefit from the resources of their continental shelf without determining issues of sovereignty and maritime boundaries. Both countries are bound by their treaty to refrain from asserting their claims to rights, jurisdiction or maritime boundaries, in relation to the other, for 50 years. That is a long time, and who knows after all the oil is gone, if either country would still be interested in pursuing their sovereignty claim.
Sunset at Timor Sea. Photo courtesy of Pepiloo.
A proposal was already made to establish a Spratly Resource Development Authority which could probably ease the pressures of conflicting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Such a cooperative arrangement could pool the financial resources of all the claimants into a joint effort to develop the area’s natural resources within a politically stable and demilitarized environment. There will be no more war of words or stoking fears that China might use its military power to impose itself on the region. Allies of the United States would also stop abetting and encouraging the U.S. government to keep its military presence in the South China Sea to counterbalance the threat of China’s rising hegemony.

In other words, the Spratlys situation should be turned into an opportunity for unity among the claimant states, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a whole—instead of division, threats of military confrontation, or the emergence of a new cold war.

So, the diplomat who said that a “shared agreement” like that of the Ruhr Valley could be right after all, although that arrangement was conceived for an entirely different purpose and under contrasting circumstances.

Compromise, as U.S. President Obama has asked his opponents in Congress to consider in trying to reach a middle ground on their policy differences, has surprisingly become the new buzzword in American politics, although it is as old as the U.S. Congress itself. Perhaps, it is also about time that each claimant state in the South China Sea consider making a compromise for the benefit of the region as a whole.

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