For my first post here at the League, I’d like to start with something a little obscure, but sufficiently interesting to touch off a little discussion.
While obscured by domestic events, the year 2010 also provided an interesting example of newly emerging issues on the global stage. Conflicts in East Asia and the South China Sea regarding Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) became more than scholarly interest when China and Japan had a very vocal spat over fishing rights that led to a ban on rare earth mineral exports to the latter. While this was later papered over, it was a new escalation in EEZ disputes.
Before we begin, I will answer the question that’s on everyone’s mind: what is an Exclusive Economic Zone? An EEZ is a region of ocean 200 nautical miles away from a state’s coast where a state has exclusive rights to mineral and marine fauna extraction. In plain english, an EEZ is a piece of ocean where a country is allowed the exclusive rights to drill for oil and gas, and catch fish. The concept came about as migratory fishing disputes became more intense in the 1970s and eventually was codified into international law in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. EEZ rights also extend to mineral extraction along the continental shelf, which can extend up to 350 nautical miles off a coast.
Originally confined to conflicts over migratory stocks of fish like halibut and cod, it’s now a major issue as off-shore energy becomes a new source of quenching the insatiable appetite we humans have for power. This is particularly true in Asia. Go take a look at the map. See how there’s a criss-cross of tiny islands and the space separating coastal lines are often much less than 200 nautical miles? This, my dear reader is what we call “seeds of conflict”.
Typically border disputes between two states are considered a matter of bilateral relations. Usually they have conflicting claims over a piece of territory and eventually find some diplomatic solution. (Or if you’re Greece and Turkey, you just keep fighting over Cyprus). A problem with EEZs, however is that many overlapping claims tend to include several actors, and those that don’t usually contain a great deal of power imbalance. Look at the South China Sea. Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, the list of claimants that have some sort of territorial dispute involving EEZs is immense.
Moreover, we’re moving into an era where most of the demand for energy consumption is shifting away from the west and into Asia. The states that have EEZ claims in the South China Sea are almost all states moving up the economic ladder. Their thirst for energy resources and mineral reserves will go up in time and as prices rise the relative attractiveness of extracting energy from the sea in the form of natural gas, methane hydrates and oil reserves will increase.
Further, as these countries grow wealthier, consumption habits are changing. Everyone seems to be developing a taste for sushi these days, and this has led to an explosion in demand for tuna and other migratory fish species. Competition for fisheries will only grow as China and other growing economies begin to construct large deep ocean trawler fleets. Already there is conflict in East Asia over fisheries rights, and it is likely to grow even worse.
The United States isn’t immune to the problems involving regional EEZs. In the Pacific the US has a number of EEZ claims ranging from the Bering Strait to the Mariana Islands. USGS surveys indicate that these same claims could yield substantial amounts of rare metal and hydrocarbon energy reserves, a valuable resource that can pay economic dividends in the future.
The Asian example of EEZs provides an interesting puzzle, because this is a region with a very weak IGO structure. ASEAN and APEC are basically little more than social club gatherings, and there is no overarching regional security framework. Most of the US alliances in the region are bilateral, and there are even very bizarre alliances like ANZUS, where for a long time treaty partners didn’t bother to speak with eachother. (ANZUS is a very interesting topic which I would like to cover at a later date)
This is complicated by the fact that the US has not actually ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 edition). The current US recognition of EEZ claims and its own EEZ declarations was done by President Reagan without the formal ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty. You may recall a year or two ago that ratification of the treaty was a hot topic in Congress. (It’s also a favorite Wingnut talking point, but again, topic for another day. Can you just see the possibilities here?) The fact that the US is not a ratified signatory to the Law of the Sea (henceforth shortened to UNCLOS) makes it difficult for the US to either convincingly stand up for EEZ rights of disputed (and weaker) nations, and to enforce its own claims.
As the US looks to increase its trading presence in the region to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it should also start looking into becoming an honest broker for resolving EEZ disputes. Indeed the Chinese actions in 2010 are part of what have made Obama’s Asia “pivot” possible, by raising concerns of China’s growing strength to force its preferences on the region.
The time to create a solid framework for dealing with this issue is now. The US still has a material advantage in seapower, the disputes are still mostly theoretical and the economic development plans in their infancy. Nipping conflicts like this in the bud and creating lasting international institutions should be every good liberal’s objective. Moreover, this is an area where a free trade oriented conservative should be able to agree, peaceful economic extraction of sea resources is a good for everyone.
An earlier version of this post claimed that the US had territorial claims in the South China Sea. This is of course incorrect. (The closest US claim to that region is the EEZ claim in the Marianas). My thanks to Kolohe for pointing this out.