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What is the way forward for the territorial disputes in the East China Sea?

Question submitted by Go Katayama, from New York University, March 25, 2013

Answered by: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies

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Japan, China, South Korea, and Taiwan all share the East China Sea, yet there are disputes over the location of maritime boundaries and territorial sovereignty. Japan, China, and Taiwan claim the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, while China and South Korea both claim a submerged reef, Socotra Rock. Resolving these longstanding disputes is difficult, but three avenues exist for reducing the risk of conflict.

First the coastal countries will need to develop mechanisms for reducing the risk of accident or miscalculation. The East China Sea is increasingly populated by the militaries of China, Japan, and South Korea, and political tensions over island disputes have evoked strong nationalist sentiments. De-escalating the standoff and returning to negotiations on handling incidents at sea are vital steps, especially for China and Japan, whose coast guards, fisheries patrols, and air and naval forces operate close to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Second, several options exist for adjudication of boundary and island disputes. Japan, China, and South Korea have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which reviews the scientific grounds for exclusive economic zone claims. Island disputes could also be subjected to third party mediation. The International Court of Justice could convene a hearing on these competing claims if both parties agree, but no formal effort to seek outside assistance has been made.

Finally, Japan, South Korea, and China could further develop cooperation via their annual trilateral consultations. The East China Sea is a source of vital resources, especially fisheries and natural resources like gas and oil. Regional cooperation on fisheries conservation as well as joint energy development projects could go a long way to offsetting tensions over territorial disputes.