Very good news out of East Asia today, as both China and Vietnam have taken concrete actions to resolve their disagreements over territory in the South China Sea. The Senkaku island dispute between Japan and China, in which China protests over Japanese ownership of the island group, have long been ignored by Japan due to sovereignty, in the words of the Japanese authorities, being “indisputable,” and forestalling any negotiations.
In the Southern China Sea China has used the same language to describe it’s claims to the Spratlys and Paracels, island and reef groups much closer to the shorelines of other countries, and within their Exclusive Economic Zones. The recent placement of an oil rig off of the coast of Vietnam escalated the situation by the Chinese side, leading to riots on the mainland, and ongoing skirmishes off of the coast of the Phillippines are not yet resolved. Historically, tensions of this kind have led to incidents involving loss of life, if not outright warfare.
These disagreements will not be solved unless all parties are willing to submit to agreements which set clear, and final, boundaries and definitions of who owns what. This can be in the form of binding arbitration from international judicial authorities, which are themselves very arcane, and of dubious authority not least due to the fact that the United States is not a signatory to several international organizations. Or they can be in the form of bilateral agreements between the two countries themselves.
Currently, China prefers the option of bilateral negotiations, while its opponents, whether Vietnam, the Phillippines, or Japan, prefer international arbitration, as China’s growing military and economic strength puts any of them at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating one-on-one. China, in turn, notes that in historical bilateral negotiations with other nations on border issues have been performed in good faith, and that multi-party arbitration involving other institutions just slows down the process, especially when the USA is involved and larger great-power politics become part of the equation.