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The World in Turbulent Waters

By Robert Valencia

The 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly served as a platform to address issues of territorial disputes especially those dealing with water. Countries in both the Caribbean and East Asia have used the United Nations to legitimize claims regarding maritime territory and control over water. These disputes increased tensions that could have costly affects. During the 68th session of the UN General Assembly, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, along with the presidents of Costa Rica and Panama, presented a protest note to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with respect to Nicaragua’s intentions of arbitrarily expanding its continental platform that would grant more maritime territory.

Colombia’s protest note comes in the wake of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) November 2012 ruling that upheld Colombia’s sovereignty over the San Andrés Archipelago but ordered that Nicaragua’s maritime borders be redrawn to give the Central American nation more offshore territory. Colombia said it would not observe the international court ruling that awarded Nicaragua 27,000 square miles of the Caribbean Sea because the Daniel Ortega administration seemingly permitted oil exploration in the disputed zone. Meanwhile, Nicaragua said on September 10, 2013, it would not negotiate “a drop of water” to Colombia.  This is not the only notorious case of sea territory disputes that involve more than two countries. Tensions among China, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines have risen, as the first is allegedly extending its influence over the South China Sea. On September 27, 2013, The Philippines filed a case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—an agreement that resulted on the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1973 and 1982—despite Beijing’s growing pressure over the Philippines not to file the case. During a visit to Indonesia on October 3, 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not make any reference to regional demands about China’s alleged expansion.

Furthermore, Japan and China both have interests in a small group of uninhabited islands called Senkaku (or Diaoyu by China) in the East China Sea. Recent developments have created bilateral tension. In September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that his country wanted to establish bilateral conversations over the maritime dispute in the event that Tokyo declares the island to be disputed. On September 27, China deployed a fleet of four vessels to oversee territorial waters near the aforementioned islands. Several Chinese vessels entered Japan-controlled waters of these islands on October 1.

The respective disputes in East and South Asia as well as in the Caribbean Sea date back centuries. Recent developments in both disputes offer a series of similarities, chief among them the struggle to explore possible natural resources. In late August, Nicaragua granted permission to unnamed oil companies to explore petroleum and natural gas in the maritime zone owned by Colombia. However, the ICJ ruled that in the future Colombia should turn over control of the maritime zone to Nicaragua.  Furthermore, Nicaragua granted construction and management permission to a Chinese-based company, with a dubious reputation, to build a canal that could threaten the environment in the Caribbean Sea. In response, Colombia sent a letter of protest to Nicaragua. Colombia believed that the Daniel Ortega administration intended to explore petroleum inside the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, which would endanger coral reefs. Similarly, extensive reserves of oil and gas exist in the South China Sea, particularly in the disputed area of Reed Bank, located 80 nautical miles from Palawan, Philippines. The right to the reserves has created tension between China, and its Southeast Asian neighbors. Furthermore, in the case of the Sino-Japanese feud over the islands in the East China Sea, a report by a United Nations geological survey showed that there is significant amount of hydrocarbon resources.

In response to these territorial disputes, military tension has escalated. In the East and South China seas, for instance, China has modernized its naval forces. According to other countries' claims, China is using their capability to wield jurisdiction and sovereignty by force if need be. Colombia has also increased its military apparatus by sending more naval fleets to the disputed area of the San Andres archipelago at the start of the ICJ ruling in November 2012.  If military threat continues it would also affect United States interests. The U.S. has actively sought to assuage any escalating conflicts, particularly in Asia-Pacific. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with their Japanese counterparts in order to sign a greater cooperation agreement on October 3 that would deploy drones and radar should a potential aggression from North Korea and China occur. The U.S is also keeping an eye on developments in the South China Sea. In fact U.S military craft performing operations has registered clashes with Chinese ones: China routinely intercepts U.S. reconnaissance flights conducted in the Chinese EEZ, leading to accidents such as the collision of a Chinese F-8 fighter and a U.S. EP 3 reconnaissance plane near Hainan Island in April 2001, as well as the clash of a Chinese submarine with a U.S. destroyer’s towed sonar and an incident involving the USNS Impeccable and the USNS Victorious ships in 2009.  In addition, any military attack between Colombia and Nicaragua (and possibly Panama and Costa Rica) could present a hurdle to the U.S. given its geographic proximity.

The root cause of these maritime disputes is the way that international law has interpreted the concept of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and whether the continental shelf is the standard way to determine maritime sovereignty. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the EEZ is a sea zone that stretches from the baseline out to 200 nautical miles. The U.S. claimed that nothing in the UNCLOS or state practice denies the right of military forces of any nation to conduct military activities within EEZ without coastal notice or consent from that country. China explains that reconnaissance maneuvers taken without prior notice or permission treads Chinese domestic law and international law. In the case of the Senkaku Islands, both Japan and China have an interpretation of continental shelf and how it applies to the islands. China says that the Okinawa Trough—a seabed feature or a back-arc basin of the East China Sea, whose geographical condition has complicated descriptive issues in legal procedures--shows no connection of Chinese and Japanese continental shelves and that the Trough serves as a boundary between them. Japan says that the Trough is an incidental depression in a continuous continental margin between the two countries; therefore the Trough should be ignored. Meanwhile, Nicaragua filed another claim before the ICJ in September 2013 in order to acquire more nautical miles beyond the 200-mile mark. In response, Colombia argued that the continental shelf of the San Andrés archipelago, which extends eastbound within 200 nautical miles, unquestionably joins Colombia’s continental shelf.  

The chances of a military escalation in South and East Asia, as some experts have argued, are very low, and the same can be said about the Caribbean Basin. Nevertheless, the UNCLOS and the ICJ should revise how landmark decisions, like the San Andrés archipelago, could potentially affect the lives of its inhabitants, as well as revise the definition of what constitutes a continental shelf given that global warming could affect the extension of seashores due to a rise in sea levels.  

In addition to military cooperation with its allies, the United States should also ratify the UNCLOS in order to become an active voice in the aforementioned maritime disputes. But most importantly, trust and cooperation must be fostered among these nations.  The U.S., the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Pacific Alliance (including Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica) are seeking to cement increased integration through the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to create a zone free of maritime strife and bolster ease and cooperation among countries.

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Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.

[Photo courtesy of  Shutterstock]

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