Google Earth Map for the Timor Sea Maritime Boundary Dispute

Google Earth is an amazing thing, and it’s hard to understand what’s truly going on in the Timor Sea simply by looking at pictures, so I’ve created a Google Earth collection that shows the coordinates provided in the major treaties affecting the region: the 1972 Indonesian-Australian Seabed Boundary Agreement [PDF], the 1981 Provisional Fisheries Surveillance and Enforcement Arrangement [PDF], the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty, the 1997 Water Column Boundary Agreement, the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty, and the 2006 Sunrise IUA/CMATS.

The Google Earth collection for the Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea can be downloaded here.

Map Explosion

if you display all of the treaties at once, it kind of looks like a rainbow threw up in the Timor Sea

If you’re interested in figuring out how all these treaties work together, it is probably more useful to just go ahead and play around with it on Google Earth, but I’ve provided a visual summary below using screencaps from the collection.

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Google Earth Collection of the Disputed Territorial Claims in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Sea of Japan-

Trying to keep track of all the contested territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea can be difficult. There are hundreds of islands, reefs, rocks, and submerged shoals that are in dispute, and the relevant coastal states don’t always agree on which of those categories is applicable to each specific maritime feature. To make matters worse, most of those features also have at least three different common names in use, which reflects the myriad of competing territorial claims throughout the region.

So in order to have an easy reference source regarding the locations and identities of the disputes rocks, reefs, and islands, I’ve created a Google Earth collection with placemarkers for China’s disputed maritime claims.

South China Sea Dispute

Right now, this Google Earth file provides indicators for (1) the geographical coordinates declared by China as its baselines for measuring the breadth of its territorial sea,  pursuant to Article 16 of UNCLOS, for (i) China’s mainland territories; (ii) the territorial sea and EEZ divisions agreed upon in the 2000 treaty between China and Vietnnam; (iii) China’s claimed territorial baselines in the Senkaku Islands; and (iv) China’s claimed territorial baselines in the Paracel Islands; (2) the submerged features, rocks, and islands of the Paracel Islands which form the basis of China’s claimed territorial sea baseline; (3) the submerged features and rocks in the Spratly Islands and in the Scarborough Shoal that are identified as areas of dispute in the Philippines’ Annex VII arbitration against China; and (4) China’s Nine-Dashed Line Map, outlining China’s nonspecific territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Using Google Earth to view the disputed territories is also helpful in that it provides access to a large collection of user-uploaded photos of the disputed maritime features — which is handy for getting a better idea of just how rock-like many of these “islands” are, or for what a “low-tide elevation” really looks like. It also allows you to play around with the various distances involved, which puts into perspective the tenuousness of some of the territorial sea and EEZ claims that are being asserted.

-Susan

The Senkaku Islands, Pt. I: UNCLOS, the EEZ, and the Conflict Between Land- and Sea-Based Sovereignty Regimes

In the East China Sea, north off the coast of Taiwan and south off the coast of Okinawa, there exists an island chain consisting of five small islets, and three smaller rocks. These islands — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu Islands in China, and the Diaoyutai Islands by Taiwan — are the subject of a longstanding territorial dispute between those three states, and in recent months the dispute has become heated once again. military and diplomatic sparring over the islands has resumed once again.

China claims the islands are part of its sovereign territory, having been wrongfully stolen by Japanese military expansions in the late 19th century. Japan, in turn, claims that it is the rightful sovereign of the Senkakus, alleging that the islands were terra nullius until 1895, when Japan incorporated the islets by cabinet decision. Japan further asserts sovereign title to the islands owing to China’s failure to object to Japan’s claims of sovereignty for over seventy years, until China first raised a competing claim to the islands in 1970.

Not coincidentally, China’s first assertions of sovereignty over the Senkakus were made just one year after seismic surveys of the sea floor surrounding the islands had discovered the existence of significant oil and gas reserves. But while the discovery of natural resources in the East China Sea precipitated the ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan, during this same time period there was another event occurring that would prove equally responsible: the development of modern international law of the sea. As result, the Senkaku Islands became a massively valuable commodity, and a previously dormant territorial dispute has become a flashpoint. Both Japan and China argue that, under international law, they are the rightful owners of the land.

The problem is, despite all the diplomatic strife and threats of military action, no one actually wants the Senkaku Islands.

And why would they? Seriously, look at these things:

Hardly anything there to speak of — and these are the three of the four biggest islets in the Senkaku Islands. In all, the island chain is nothing more than a barren 1,700 acres of sand, scrub, and rock. A few endangered moles live there, along with some feral goats, but the Senkakus are not suitable for human habitation. It is debatable whether any fresh water sources even exist on the islands, and previous attempts at establishing industry on Uotsuri, the largest islet, have all ended in failure.

The above-water portions of the Senkaku Islands are of negligible value. But the islands’ worthlessness is irrelevant to the intensity of the dispute over their ownership. China and Japan do not seek possession of the Senkakus because they wish to possess the islands, but because possession of the Senkakus is a mechanism for obtaining possession over the surrounding sea. In other words: possession of the Senkakus is a means, not an end.

In previous eras, when competing claims of sovereignty over a territory could not be determined by reference to either treaties or to customary international law, there did remain one additional mechanism that states could resort to for conclusively resolving the question of ownership. That particular mechanism, however, has now been expressly prohibited by Article 2 of the UN charter. With sovereignty-by-conquest no longer a sanctioned means of dispute resolution, and when the states involved in the dispute have no interest in submitting the matter to an adjudicative body, the result is an effective stalemate. In a fruitless attempt to resolve the conflict by reference to international law, Japan and China have now been reduced to squabbling over ancient maps and conflicting historical accounts.

This is the current status of the Senkaku Islands, and of numerous other disputed island territories off the coast of China and Japan. Japan and China can each point to various 19th century maps or little-noticed governmental decrees to bolster their claims of sovereignty. But based on the existing historical record concerning the occupation and use of the Senkaku Islands, neither China nor Japan can convincingly demonstrate a superior claim.

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Sovereignty, Soft Power, and the U.S.’s Refusal to Ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) is up for debate before the U.S. Senate once again, which means the perennial debate over whether the U.S. should finally ratify the treaty is currently making its rounds through the media. Last week, five former Secretaries of State — Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, James Baker, and Colin Powell — joined in on the effort, publishing an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal on Time to Join The Law of the Sea Treaty: The U.S. has more to gain by participating in convention deliberations than by staying out. The former Secretaries of State lay out their case for why ratifying UNCLOS in our national security, economic, and sovereign interests.

Unfortunately, judging from the tenor of other recent articles and political statements regarding UNCLOS, this latest round of debate before the Senate will not be any more productive at achieving that end than prior rounds have been.

The political wrangling over whether or not to ratify the UNCLOS has long been stalled out in the U.S., having been transformed into an argument between competing ideals rather than a policy debate. Opposition to UNCLOS is often not really about UNCLOS; the question has instead become a symbolic fight between two opposed camps, the sovereignists and the internationalists, regarding the U.S.’s proper role in the international community. Are we going to protect the democratic interests of the American people from foreign interference with our national interests by non-democratic international organizations? Or are we going to be a good little team player, and join UNCLOS to demonstrate just how committed the U.S. is to cooperation and kumbaya?

As a result, the arguments against ratifying UNCLOS tend to mention “sovereignty” a lot, without ever going into too many specifics, or else recite a list of generic problems inherent in just about any international agreement, without ever specifying why UNCLOS is more objectionable than any other treaty. In recent months, however, the argument de jure of the sovereignists has been that the U.S. cannot join UNCLOS because of China.

Because of what about China, exactly? Well, that part is not entirely clear. Although the specifics of the China argument are often murky, its general formulation usually goes something like this:

Herein lies a major danger in U.S. ratification of UNCLOS. In adopting, promoting, and acting on new interpretations of international law, China is attempting to upset the status quo and establish new norms of maritime behavior. By signing up to UNCLOS, the United States might unintentionally signal approval of these errant interpretations.

What this argument lacks in logic, it makes up for with self-promoting claims of American virtue, and how the United States — unlike, say, China or Iran — has no need to enter foreign treaties, since we already abide by international law. The sub-argument for this claim against UNCLOS is the “but we’re already obeying UNCLOS so why should we sign it” argument:

Besides, we are adhering to UNCLOS. It’s the Chinese that are trying to redefine UNCLOS according to their own purposes, without re-negotiating the contract, and in so doing undermining customary law.

Of course, this claim is completely contradicted by the arguments of yet other UNCLOS detractors. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, suggested in his own Wall Street Journal OpEd that the U.S. shouldn’t sign on to UNCLOS because it gives us the power to redefine the law of the sea for our own purposes. By not being part of UNCLOS, he argues, we can act at will, while China will be stuck trying to find loopholes in the treaty:

With China emerging as a major power, ratifying the treaty now would encourage Sino-American strife, constrain U.S. naval activities, and do nothing to resolve China’s expansive maritime territorial claims. … If the Senate ratifies the treaty, we would become subject to its dispute-resolution mechanisms and ambiguities. Right now, since we are the world’s major naval power, our conduct dominates state practice and hence customary international law—to our decided advantage.

So, to summarize these claims: (1) Joining UNCLOS would be bad because, through China joining UNCLOS, China has been able to redefine the law of the sea by arguing for new interpretations of it; and (2) Joining UNCLOS would be bad because, through the U.S. not joining UNCLOS, the U.S. has been able to redefine the law of the sea through its own practices.

On the other hand, the arguments in favor of UNCLOS are largely premised upon a laundry list of supposed soft power benefits that are to be gained through ratifying the treaty. The OpEd from the former Secretaries of State are a good example of how nebulous and unsatisfying these alleged benefits can sound, in contrast to the claims of the sovereignists:

As the world’s pre-eminent maritime power with one of the longest coastlines, the U.S. has more than any other country to gain—and to lose—based on how the convention’s terms are interpreted and applied. By becoming party to the treaty, we would strengthen our capacity to influence deliberations and negotiations involving other nations’ attempts to extend their continental boundaries.

Which is probably why the pro-UNCLOS factions have, for nearly two decades now, failed to get UNCLOS ratified. No matter how you try and spin it, “increasing our capacity to influence deliberations” sounds like a rather flimsy prize, especially when it comes at the cost of American sovereignty.

But this lack of substantive debate likely persists due to the fact that the practical effects for the United States for ratifying UNCLOS, whether negative or positive, have been relatively minor. To date, the U.S. has done a decent job of splitting the baby when it comes to UNCLOS, consistently abiding by most of UNCLOS’s provisions while simultaneously claiming to only be following customary law. As a result, the question of whether or not the U.S. should formally ratify the convention has been largely academic.

Because the U.S. has been a superpower throughout all relevant points of UNCLOS’ existence, whether the U.S. joins or doesn’t join UNCLOS has made so little difference that the U.S. could afford to ignore the debate altogether, or at least make it into a question of lofty principles rather than concrete policy. Which is why the U.S. has succeeded in being the only major power that has avoided ratifying UNCLOS — the stakes just haven’t been that high.

But UNCLOS has been in force for eighteen years now. U.S.’s strategy of refusing to commit one way or another will not come without a price for much longer. Starting with 60 member nations when it came into effect in 1994, UNCLOS now has 162 members, including every Western nation other than the United States. During that time period, UNCLOS has been steadily solidifying, from its initial existence as a recital of customary international law, into the widely-adopted international institution it is today.

With 80% of the world’s nations party to it, UNCLOS is now the framework by which States negotiate the division of sovereignty interests over the world’s oceans. The law of the sea is no longer made through pure customary law, as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries; the frame for the debate has changed, and as a result UNCLOS and law of the sea are now effectively synonymous.

This is not to say that the rules under the UNCLOS regime are vastly different from what the rules were under the old pure-CIL regime. The actual substance of the law of the sea has not changed all that much — in most situations, complying with customary international law of the sea means complying with UNCLOS, and vice versa.

But even if the rules themselves haven’t changed, the ways in which those rules could change has been altered. UNCLOS is now the mechanism to which the overwhelming majority of states turn when they feel a need to settle a question regarding the content of the law of the sea. True, the old law of the sea is not likely to experience much upheaval, and UNCLOS is less important there — those customary norms were developed over centuries of seafaring, as states scuffled and squabbled with one another until an adequate balance of their rights was finally struck, and as a result those rules now enjoy a sort of tenure under international law.

But UNCLOS also provides the framework under which new rules are crafted, tinkered with, implemented. When, due to political or environment change, novel situations arise — be it the development of new deep seabed mining techniques, the opening of the Northwest passage, commercial investments in Antarctica, rising international sea levels, or what have you — states will have to find new ways of drawing jurisdictional lines and of coordinating their activities. Right now, the primary institution for establishing those new ways is through UNCLOS. UNCLOS provides both the procedural mechanisms for how and when states actually talk to one another, and the substantive rules that they play by.

When new jurisdictional schemes need to be created, states anchor their claims with references to UNCLOS, and expect states advancing competing interests to do the same. States that try to advance their interests outside of — or worse yet, in contradiction with — this framework are punished for it, occasionally through hard procedural mechanisms, but more often through a softer loss of diplomatic power. True, using the social framework of UNCLOS will not be nearly as effective as using the world’s strongest navy, when it comes to advancing the national interest — but the UNCLOS framework is present in every debate and discussion among UNCLOS members regarding international law of the sea, setting the scene for international relations for years to follow. U.S. naval ships, in contrast, are only invoked on the occasions where the U.S. direct interests are on the line, and are rather imprecise tools when it comes to shaping the precise contours of international law.

John Bolton, in the OpEd quoted above, displayed a somewhat questionable understanding of the concept of “state practice” by making the dubious assertion that the U.S. can unilaterally establish state practice, simply by virtue of its status as a superpower. But even if this claim were true, it fails to recognize a corresponding fact — that the overwhelming majority of state practice and opinio juris both lies behind using UNCLOS’s mechanisms as a means of developing international ocean policy. Superpower or not, the U.S.’s “state practice” of refusing to operate through UNCLOS hardly outweighs the state practice of the 162 nations who do use the institution. The institutional weight of UNCLOS is becoming firmly entrenched, and the longer the U.S. refuses to play ball, the less opportunity the U.S. will have to shape that institution in ways favorable to U.S. interests.

When it comes to the generation and development of customary international law of the high seas, UNCLOS is currently the biggest game in town. In a decade or so, it will be the only one. China, it seems, has realized this already. Maybe the next time ratification of UNCLOS comes up for vote before the Senate, the U.S. will have finally realized it too.

-Susan