An Opportunity for Peace in Asia-Pacific

The North Sea Commission was established in 1989 “to facilitate and enhance partnerships between regions which manage the challenges and opportunities presented by the North Sea. Furthermore, to promote the North Sea Basin as a major economic entity within Europe, by encouraging joint development initiatives and political lobbying at European Union level.”

The eight NSC member states -- Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, France, England and Scotland -- and their respective sub-national administrative regions gather annually in a general assembly to foster dialogue and partnerships to pursue common interests in the North Sea.

Such an organization, with some modifications, appears tailor-made for resolving the maritime and territorial disputes throughout Asia-Pacific. At the very least, it would create opportunities for dialogue.

A Pacific Seas Commission?

If such a commission were to be developed for the Asia-Pacific--for the sake of argument we will assume said organization is named the Pacific Seas Commission, or PSC-- it is unlikely that member states would be represented by sub-national administrative regions but the by state itself, given the nature of the territorial and maritime disputes. At a glance, the PSC would appear to be no different than ASEAN or APEC or any other international forum with a common purpose.

Its mandate, however, would be specific. The PSC, like NSC, would seek to develop partnerships between member states in common areas of interest, and to facilitate the joint exploration and sharing of natural resources. For the commission to succeed, however, the issue of sovereignty must be set aside.

Although the issue of sovereignty is the focal point of the territorial and maritime disputes that have plagued Asia-Pacific, simply dwelling on differences alone would achieve little. To be overly ambitious is to invite failure. The PSC would suffer a stillbirth if its stated goal was to resolve these disputes, and thereby jeopardize any dialogue and engagement that could have been achieved over shared goals.

There is a saying that goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Such a commission is not about taking on big challenges and making a splash, nor is it merely about fighting battles that can only be won. An organization such as the PSC would, over time, take on the big challenges and make a splash. It would, over time, fight not just the battles that can be won but the battles that at first appeared impossible. How? One bite at a time.

By tackling common objectives, member states could clear the table of easier, smaller issues that, if left forgotten, could impede or sidetrack negotiations over more complex issues in the future. Establishing partnerships begins at a personal level. Engaging over shared interests could help foster cooperation between state leaders and create some measure of trust. Where there is agreement, the PSC proceed. Where there is disagreement, the PSC could set the matter aside.

Where could China and claimant countries agree in the South China Sea disputes? Where could Japan and South Korea agree on the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Tokto in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese)? And/or where could Japan and China agree on the Senkakus islands in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese? On the matter of joint exploration and sharing of natural resources, member states could work together to develop deep sea research capabilities and policies. Joint explorations could be carried out by a multinational crew.

Given the all-encompassing nature of the commission, only the specific countries involved in the named dispute would negotiate; the others would serve as observers. In the South China Sea disputes, for example, Japan and Korea would serve as observers, whereas the Philippines and Vietnam could assume said role over the Liancourt Rocks disputes.

Not just about sovereignty

Getting all the parties involved to sit down at the same table and talk would prove to be the most challenging, if only because issue the disputes are at, its core, an issue of sovereignty. The issue of sovereignty is the proverbial elephant in the room.

China’s position of strength in Asia-Pacific is absolute and undeniable. The South China Sea disputes have highlighted the wariness of claimant countries to deal with China bilaterally. On a one on one basis, China’s influence would overwhelm the much smaller nation.

Conversely, China has refused to pursue a multilateral resolution for fear that claimant countries would form a “bloc” against Chinese interests. The Pacific Seas Commission or one like it would behave, in theory, as a multinational organization seeking through consensus to arrive at a multilateral agreement. Although China’s size and influence would prove beneficial in its dispute over the Socotra Rock with South Korea, China’s position would be less so in the Spratly Islands dispute.

If sovereignty was the only obstacle, these disputes would be easier to resolve. Unfortunately, it is not.

Whereas the economic disparity between NSC member states is small, the gap between rich and poor is greater among Asian nations. The standard of living is higher in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore than it is in Vietnam or Indonesia. On the other hand, China is the region’s economic giant with Japan following distantly behind. No one can say that NSC member states share a common culture or identity (although the Scandinavian states, as well as the British nations, are perhaps more alike than the rest); however, the NSC share the benefit of being members of the European community.

No such closeness exists in Asia-Pacific. Certainly no organization like the European Union exists to bring the region together, economically and culturally. Whereas historical events have helped bring Europe (in particular Western Europe) closer together, the opposite seems to hold true in Asia. The devastation and aftermath of World War Two helped unite Western Europe in a way no other world event could have achieved; yet, in the Pacific, a history of colonialism and the War have only pushed Asian countries apart as they walk the newfound path of independence.

The divisions are deep in Asia. Japan’s role and crimes during the Second World War make it especially unpopular among neighboring states. Tension remains high between Mainland China and Taiwan; Vietnam continues to regard China with distrust; and South and North Korea are still at war. Couple these differences with the issue of sovereignty and one would have a difficult time getting anyone to listen, never mind participate, in the PSC.

Although, at present, it is unlikely any country would go to war over a rock or series of rocks, the longer territorial and maritime disputes remain unresolved, the more likely it will be that a conflict will be fought over them.

Looking to the future in the past

All too often today, there is a natural tendency to slide towards cynicism and say, “Whatever.” It is a real possibility that the Pacific Seas Commission or an organization like it would flounder. State leaders would like nothing more than to leave behind a legacy that would forever be remembered. To do so, they would outline grand ideas and objectives. But all too often, they fall short of expectations.

If the PSC should fail, it is because its members tried to do too much.

The path towards peace in Asia-Pacific is not taken in one leap, but a series of smaller steps. The leaders today must come to realize that their legacy will not be remembered for a singular action or decision, but the culmination of their time in office. The path to lasting peace in Asia-Pacific is not without its difficulties and may span one, two, or more generations; however, the passing of time should not serve to discourage those who would attempt to bring stability to the region.

There can only be peace if there is demand for peace. Progress for peace will be slow. Progress will be hard and require concessions from all sides. Expectations must be managed. However, the journey and the destination is one worth undertaking if done right.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa who researches on international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)