How to Settle the Spratleys


In the past few years, China has become increasingly engaged in actions that provoke concerns throughout eastern and southern Asia.  In response, neighboring nations have become receptive to measures to counterbalance and contain China.  For instance, such nations appear generally favorable toward America’s recent military “pivot to Asia.”

One area of perceived arrogance has to do with certain islands in the East and South China Seas.  In the East China Sea, China has become more visibly hostile toward Japan and its claims to the Senkaku (or, for China, the Diaoyu) Islands.  In the South China Sea, China has taken comparably aggressive measures against other nations (e.g., the Philippines) with respect to the Spratleys and other islands.  The reasons for these claims, of course, are primarily economic:  legal title to the islands would carry valuable ownership advantages with respect to oil and other rights in the waters nearby.

I have had a bit of exposure to international law — but only enough to acquire some general respect for the complexity of the issues and the thoughtfulness with which scholars approach them.  I write these words with full awareness that what I would suggest has almost surely been considered and rejected — or, perhaps, accepted in some form, but without any concomitant ability to implement the solution.  The only regard in which I might offer a trace of originality would have to do with the media portrayal (and, ideally, the popular understanding) of these disputes.

The traditional concept appears to be that someone must own the islands, in a winner-take-all kind of arrangement.  A more plausible default assumption, within the popular portrayal, may be that, in situations like this (extending, conceivably, to such utterly different theaters as the Falklands and Jerusalem), multiple parties could own rights within various regions centered on the islands.  The essence of this perspective is that one should convert war to wonkfest.  That is, what is at issue is not outright ownership of the islands, but rather the technical details of the formula by which territories (or aspects of the territories) surrounding the islands are apportioned to claimants.

To offer a simple illustration of such a formula, consider the typical pie chart.  It is a circle comprising 100% of the data contained therein.  The pie is divided into slices, with a slice representing 45% of the total being presented as larger than a slice representing only 12% of the total.

One might apply the pie chart motif to the Senkakus by drawing up several equations that would recommend various divisions of the surrounding ocean waters.  One equation could be focused on the portion of the pie that is suggested by geographical size and proximity.  For instance, one might draw lines on a map, from the center of the disputed islands to the boundaries of the claimant nations.  (These lines would be a bit like the lines commonly drawn among Sun, Earth, and Moon to illustrate eclipses.)  A big, nearby claimant could qualify, in this approach, for a large minority chunk of the disputed pie, while a small, distant claimant might qualify for only a tiny wedge.  Unallocated remants could then be divided equally, or allocated according to the relative sizes of the two primary wedges, or perhaps devoted in part to administrative taxation.

Another such equation could focus on the distance from the claimant to the disputed territory, using a negotiated diminution principle.  That is, one could say that a nation half as close as another should have half as strong a claim; alternately, one could apply the inverse square law — by which, for instance, a light that is half as close as another provides only one-quarter as much energy.

There could also be nongeographical equations based on history, legal principle, cultural affinity, and other factors.  In addition, there may eventually develop sets of equations that have proved to be particularly useful (and popularly accepted) when dealing with remote islands, holy cities, native lands, and other special cases.

Rather than allow any one of these equations to determine the entire matter, negotiations might begin by seeking to distinguish plausible from implausible principles of division, and to arrive at equations that would fairly reflect the interplay of relevant factors.  For instance, some may argue that an equation oriented toward the legal principle of self-determination by inhabitants (if any) strongly outweighs mere proximity to a third-party claimant; others may contend, to the contrary, that self-determination must be substantially diluted with historical indications suggesting the likelihood of war if some nearby but locally unpopular claimant is completely spurned.  It goes without saying that, while the technicalities of the computation process may elude the man in the street, there must be at least a general trust that the matter is being sorted out in an intelligent and reasonable manner.

Of course, the pie chart is a simple way of presenting the thing.  In some situations, it may make more sense to talk about vectors dividing an oval or some other shape within four dimensions.

The core of this proposal is that some territorial disputes are amenable to conversion into formulaic terms, perhaps within an adaptive administrative structure, sufficient to replace public passions and enduring grudges with something resembling a corporate dealmaking approach — assuming, that is, that one can disaggregate the geographical entity into negotiable components.

It is probably not much of an overstatement to suggest that no reasonable person on this Earth believes that the survival of Japan should even be mentioned in a discussion of the Senkakus.  Sadly, however, that is where some current rhetoric leads.  It would be a really good idea to get away from that.  This post offers one way to attempt such distancing.


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