As if the current load of disputes was not sufficient, a big sleeping giant is about to wake up ― competing claims by Korea, Japan and China over the continental shelves in the East China Sea.
Rather unnoticed in the waning moments of 2012, an 800-page report was submitted by Korea to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Included in the submission was scientific and technical information on how far Korea’s landmass extends under the sea toward the Pacific.
In more technical terms, Korea basically claims that the “natural prolongation” of her land territory extends beyond the 200 nautical miles from the baseline, all the way to the Okinawa Trough, deep inside the exclusive economic zone claimed by Japan.
Korea’s submission followed China’s submission of its own information on Dec. 14 to the same commission. In the report, China also claimed its continental shelf should reach the same Okinawa Trough.
The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates (in Article 76, paragraph 8) that any country claiming a continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical miles should submit such information to the commission. The same convention also acknowledges a continental shelf of a coastal state in terms of the natural prolongation of the land territory. Korea and China thus purported to submit scientific information to substantiate their claims. It turns out that the natural prolongation of the landmass of the two countries nearly touches Japan’s territorial waters in the region.
Not surprisingly, Japan has made clear that these claims are not acceptable and asserted instead that delimitation on the basis of an equidistant median line (i.e., dividing in half) is the most equitable solution to the problem.
The December moves of Korea and China, although expected for sometime now, must have displeased Japan, to say the least. Japan dismisses the two neighbors’ positions by referring to international court decisions which seem to have endorsed median line delimitations in similar situations.
In a nutshell, the areas claimed by Korea and China mainly overlap in the region and Japan does not recognize at all the claims made by Korea and China to the extent they exceed the median line. Once the scientific and technical information is confirmed as accurate by the 21-member commission, the next step is for the three adjacent countries to sit down together for negotiations to delimitate the overlapping regions.
Korea’s Dec. 26 submission also makes clear that future negotiations are necessary by putting a disclaimer that its submission is “without prejudice to the questions of delimitation of the continental shelf.”
In other words, these two submissions were meant to mark the beginning of trilateral negotiations, perhaps long negotiations. Some experts are even talking about a couple of decades. Between Korea and Japan, this is to take an old issue from the shelf and dust it off. The two countries concluded a Joint Development Agreement in 1974 which is set to run through 2028, only 15 years away.
The maritime territorial flare-ups among the three countries are showing no signs of letting up. A likely scenario of how they will jockey for the enormous pockets of natural resources buried under the seabed could make the recent confrontations look tame.
Once the current spell of bad weather passes by, a breakthrough needs to be found in order to unlock the impasse. A breakthrough would only come with confidence building and mutual trust ― the same spirit shared when the three countries set up a Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in 2011. Given what has transpired since 2012, almost anything would look easier than reviving that spirit.
As long as it is continued, genuine efforts are made, it may be slow in coming but come it will. Failing this, the East China Sea will be known for all sorts of bickering.
The sea of confrontation should turn into a sea of cooperation (why not joint trilateral development projects?). Otherwise, it may become a sea of heartbreak for all three.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.