A european solution
The world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War last August. By the time the devastating war ended in 1918, there were few people in the countries that took part — which involved most of the Western world — who were not affected in one way or the other. Many analysts draw parallels between the circumstances that led up to World War I and what’s panning out on the East Asian stage today. Japan and Russia are the old power desperate to revive their past glories of global influence. China, the rapidly rising new power, and the United States, desperate to hold onto its predominance, are engulfed in the same dangerously tense power struggle that triggered armed conflicts among major and rising global powers a century ago. Nationalist voices are getting upper hands in each country and arms races are ominous dark clouds over the East Asian horizon.
We learn history to draw lessons from the past and to build a better future by avoiding the same mistakes. The assassination of an heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary provoked the start of the war, building into contests between alliances of military powers. The circumstantial dangers are hidden in East Asia. China has no intention of going to war with the U.S. or Japan. But if skirmishes started to occur and spread in an unpredictable direction, they could develop into a bigger war. The territorial disputes in the South China Sea could be the mines that get tripped by political or diplomatic missteps.
China is engaged in territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands) in the East Sea and has maritime and island claims in the South China Seas that conflict with those of Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Cambodia. The sea disputes concern a number of archipelagos and surrounding fishing areas and are highly risky because sovereignty claims put national pride at stake. Territorial claims are a typical zero-sum game. Because of the absolute nature of sovereignty, a nation cannot tolerate its territory being claimed by someone else. The problem can be put off, but time won’t solve it. There is no win-win solution.
A regional peace commission could turn a hotbed of disputes into a source of cooperation and co-prospertiy.
So will territorial disputes forever weigh on the region? We can seek an answer to this question from Europe which has endured two major wars and finally achieved integration. In the 1950s, European countries yielded some parts of coal and steel output for common control as the first steps toward integration. Industrial, monetary and military collaboration ensued to create today’s European Union. The pooling concept to share sovereign powers among members played the key role in knitting the community into one. In his new book on the future of Europe, British scholar Anthony Giddens argues for the benefits of unity under the concept of “sovereignty plus,” as EU member states appear to give up sovereignty but earn more influence in the world through the EU’s collective identity. Pooling sovereignty can deliver surplus powers to individual states and strengthen national identities against the wave of globalization.
East Asian countries also could solve their disputes by jointly running a pool of sea territories claimed by various nations. The islets and maritime resources could become common assets of the member countries. A pan-national organization like the European Commission could oversee the areas. A regional peace commission could turn the hotbed of disputes into a source of cooperation and co-prosperity. Deciding the stakes in the pool of sovereign interests would be mere diplomatic technicalities. What’s important is a spirit of compassion for smaller states from bigger powers to achieve the kind of greater cooperative outcome that has led to the success of the EU.
If leaders could come to an agreement, the plan would not be so far-fetched. The disputed territories are not that big. They are mostly uninhabitable rocks. Because they are uninhabited it should be easier to reach diplomatic arrangements. To perceive this arrangement as a surrender of sovereignty would be misguided. Instead it should be understood as amplifying sovereignty by extending the territorial realm. The benefits of resource exploitation could be shared by the member states.
The biggest benefit would be the removal of sources of conflict to build a regional cooperative network for lasting peace.
Through the success of such an experiment with islands, the network could be developed to creates one long pan-national coastal region in the Pacific. Creating a peaceful stretch in the Pacific could be an alternative to regional war.