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China's Maritime Disputes: Preventive Measures

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Speakers: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Simon Tay, Chairman, Singapore Institute of International Affairs
Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
Producers: Jeremy Sherlick
Hagit Ariav
September 17, 2013

Increasingly frequent clashes between China and its neighbors heighten the risk of escalating tensions and military conflict over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Policy experts discuss a range of preventive measures aimed at mitigating miscalculations by sea captains or political leaders that could trigger an armed conflict:

• Resource Sharing -- Claimants in both the South China Sea and East China Sea could cooperate on the development of resources (PDF), including fisheries, petroleum, and gas. A resource-sharing agreement could include bilateral patrolling mechanisms, which would deter potential sources of conflict like illegal fishing and skirmishes arising from oil and gas exploration. More collaborations in the mold of joint fishery deals like those between China and Vietnam and Japan and Taiwan could mitigate risk by sharing economic benefits.

• Military-to-Military Communication -- Increased dialogue between military forces has the potential to reduce the risk of conflict escalation. Communication mechanisms like military hotlines to manage maritime emergencies, similar to the one set up by China and Japan and the one that China and Vietnam agreed to institute in June 2013, could be established among all claimants. These hotline systems would connect leaders in the event of a crisis that could arise from such mishaps as naval maneuvers misinterpreted by captains of merchant vessels or fishermen. Lastly, joint naval exercises could support greater military transparency and help develop shared rules of the road.

• Building a Multilateral Framework -- The development of a multilateral, binding code of conduct between China and ASEAN countries is often cited as a way of easing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The parties have already agreed upon multilateral risk reduction and confidence-building measures in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, but none have adhered to its provisions or implemented its trust-building proposals. While China has historically preferred to handle all disputes bilaterally, the resumption of negotiations between Beijing and ASEAN still holds promise for reinvigorating a multilateral framework toward greater cooperation and conflict resolution.

• International Arbitration -- Bringing territorial disputes to an international legal body presents another means of conflict mitigation. The International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea are two forums where claimants can file submissions for settlement. In July 2013, a UN tribunal was convened in The Hague to discuss an arbitration case filed by the Philippine government contesting the legality of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. An outside organization or mediator could also to be called upon to resolve the disagreement, although the prospect for success in these cases is slim given China's likely opposition to such options.


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