Why They Quarrel

2 Jan

south_china_sea_dispute_China on December 14 submitted a non-binding report to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and Japan and South Korea have responded with their own reports. It’s hardly news as dramatic as boats clashing and planes scrambling, but – sorry, media – it’s not a pointless dust-up. I wonder sometimes if anyone realizes, that the point here is to avoid violence and acknowledge valid disagreements.

John Hickman offers an alternative explanation for why nation-states, such as China, South Korea, or ASEAN members, press for every kilometer of maritime territory.

The unspoken grievance is that China and South Korea gained little new territory as Exclusive Economic Zones in the scramble to carve up the oceans during the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite their large economies and populations, China and South Korea were entitled to claim only fractions of the areas claimed by the ten states that received the largest shares: the five Anglo-Saxon powers + France, Russia, Indonesia, Japan and Portugal. The United States and France each acquired more than 11.3 million square kilometers of the oceans. By comparison, China may claim a mere 879,000 square kilometers – less than the 923,322 square kilometers that the Maldives received. Given that China has the largest population on the planet, the second largest national economy and the fourth largest pre-UNCLOS land area, awarding 31 other states more area is another humiliation for a people whose modern national narrative consists largely of humiliation by other powers.

If the discrepancy between economic and military power on the one hand and new territory under UNCLOS on the other is not as extreme in the case of South Korea, it must still rankle. South Korea can claim only 300,851 square kilometers, less than the 308,480 square kilometers for Nauru.

Hickman makes a valid point, that East Asia is not the only region where hydrocarbon reserves play a role in international disputes. It also reminds me, that nation-states are not natural entities, but validated through conventions, like the United Nations and international law.

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