Territorial disputes: South China Sea (Part 16) [Post 131]

The South China Sea represents a classical TERRITORIAL DISPUTE in which several international agents claim sovereign rights for different reasons over the same area. Regionally, with a direct or indirect implication, we have China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia. In addition to the regional claimants, there are many other international actors. The previous posts introduced Australia, Japan and the United States. The solution seems to require a mutually exclusive relation amongst them because it is assumed that the sovereignty over the arwa can be granted to only one of them. Indeed, sovereignty is often regarded as an absolute concept (that is to say, exclusive, and not shareable).


The South China Sea is a clear example of a zero sum game, with many negative outcomes of different sorts (e.g. inefficient exploitation of natural resources, tension in international relations, and threat to local, regional and international peace). Thus, while these conflicts are in principle confined to specific areas and start with negative consequences primarily for the local population, they tend quickly to expand to the regional and—even—the international level (e.g. effects on international price of oil, war). There are many issues at stake domestically and internationally.



Time to solve the dispute over the South China Sea. Territory, in principle, can be defined as an area owned and possessed by the population (in land, water, space and, perhaps, cyberspace). Like population, it may have features that could cause controversy in TERRITORIAL DISPUTES. The next posts will review some of the features that constitute territory using the South China Sea conflict as an example. Next time we center the attention on borders, natural resources and defense.


Let us remember the way in why this series propose to deal with TERRITORIAL DISPUTES. The allocation of sovereignty will be given by: a) equal right to participate (egalitarian consensus principle); b) the nature and degree of participation depends on efficiency of accomplishing the particular objective/area/activity at issue (principle of efficiency); c) each party receives a benefit (in terms of rights and opportunities) that depends on what that party cooperates with (input-to-output ratio principle); and d) provided the party with greater ability and therefore greater initial participation rights has the obligation to bring the other two parties towards equilibrium (equilibrium proviso). I call this way of dealing with sovereignty conflicts or disputes the EGALITARIAN SHARED SOVEREIGNTY.


Many questions are to be expected. Amongst them: How is that translated into geographical borders amongst the many claimants? What about the exploration and exploitation of natural resources? This question has two parts: a) the sea-zone surrounding islands only; and b) the portion of sea-zone that overlaps in cases like China and Vietnam. Finally, in the hypothetical scenario that a party alien to the original dispute decided conduct activities (for example, exploitation of natural resources, invasion), who should defend the disputed area?


The next posts on this blog series about TERRITORIAL DISPUTES will cover these questions.



NOTE: based on Chapter 7, Núñez, Jorge Emilio. 2017. Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.


Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @London1701

24th September 2018

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