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From the Sea of Conflict to the Sea of Commons

Shinzo Hayase
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Do Academic Contributions Have Any Influence On Solving Disputes?

Surrounded by the east coast of the Eurasian Continent and islands such as the Japanese Archipelago, the Philippine Islands, and Borneo, there is no clue to solve, diplomatically or under international law, territorial disputes in this sea area over deserted islands, rocks, and “low-tide elevations,” a piece of land which is above sea level only during low tide. Books written by journalists on these disputes often stand out but may not contribute academically for conflict resolutions. Is military force the only way to settle these disputes? Not necessarily. In all times and places, humans have solved challenging issues by sharing wisdom. Analyzing the disputes will lead to solutions.

Possession by Modern States (Colonization of the Sea)

Modern states claimed deserted islands and rocks, neither of which is naturally habitable, from the late 19th century through the 20th century. In other words, modern states colonized the sea, ignoring the maritime people who had depended on it for survival. In the North Pacific for example, from the east the United States occupied and claimed Wake Island in 1899 for guano (solid waste from sea birds) for fertilizer, when the Frontier disappeared. Meanwhile, from the west Japan did the same in Minami-Torishima (Marcus Island) in 1898 in pursuit of feathers for export to Europe (Wake Island was occupied by Japan during World War II). On the other hand, islands and rocks in East and Southeast Asia missed the occasion to demarcate their areas of sovereignty due to regional turmoil such as the civil wars in China and the colonization of several countries in the area, resulting in today’s territorial disputes

Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands and Takeshima (Dokdo) Islets (Liancourt Rocks)

The Senkaku Islands were annexed by Japan in January 1895 in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War. Since Japan won the war and gained possession of Taiwan, the ownership of the islands was not discussed in the negotiations during the Shimonoseki Peace Treaty. China's insistence that Japan stole the islands is attributable to the absence of an agreement between the two countries over their ownership; China has actually proposed that the islands should be returned to their original state prior to January 1895. However, Japan cannot accept this claim because Japan proposed ceding its Miyako and Yaeyama Islands to the Qing dynasty in exchange for the dynasty's recognition of Japan's sovereignty over the main island of Okinawa. The Takeshima islets were incorporated into Japan's territory in January 1905 in the middle of the Russo-Japanese War. Since Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, there has not been agreement between the two countries over their ownership.

Spratly Islands

The waters between the Indochina Peninsula and the Philippine Islands were the subjects of conflict between France and Japan, the former of which established the French Indochina in 1887 and hastened its colonization, and the latter advanced to the region for phosphate rocks and other natural resources. The Spratly Islands in the area, which were abandoned by Japanese phosphate rock mining companies in the 1920s, were claimed by France in 1933. To protest against this claim, Japan forcefully took the islands from France in 1939. Today, the islands are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan as a heritage of their colonial rule as well as China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Legal Grounds and History

China believes that its orderly relations with the Southeast Asian countries, which paid tribute to China and belonged to the hierarchy ruled by Chinese culture, were destroyed when China underwent its civil wars and Japan's invasion. When countries disputing with China present legal grounds not accepted by China, China asserts their invalidity from a historical viewpoint. China rejected the arbitrary ruling at The Hague rendered in July 2016 as "a piece of scrap paper" and "a political farce under the cloak of law."

Pursuit of Regional and Global Interests Rather Than National Ones

The cause of these disputes lie in the intentions of the countries involved to exclusively own the disputed areas. These countries resort to nationalism, thinking that it serves their national interests. There is an idea that the sea is a common area, where it is revered as a part of nature beyond human control and its blessing should be shared, stretches back to ancient times. In the example of the North Pacific mentioned above, if Japan had recognized American sovereignty, Japanese could have collected feathers on American territories since Americans were not interested in the island's resources. A territorial claim is not incompatible with the idea of commons; they can coexist. A good example is the Antarctic. Although seven countries have claimed a part of the continent so far, the Antarctic Treaty adopted in 1959 freezes territorial rights and claims and guarantees the use of the continent for peaceful purposes and the freedom of scientific investigation.


When diplomatic efforts between countries cannot produce results, nongovernmental organizations have greater roles. Before discussing the roles of nongovernmental organizations, we should pay attention to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN, covering unstable sea areas, requires a unanimous agreement on every issue as a rule. While criticized for its meticulous decision-making process, the organization emphasizes unofficial dialogues and makes tenacious efforts to find solutions. I hope that ASEAN will find solutions through repeated dialogues with major powers that are greatly concerned with maintaining their dignity.

Environmental Destruction and Depletion of Fishing Resources

In addition to the territorial disputes, these waters face serious environmental destruction and issues in overfishing. Once the disputing countries and their people become more aware of these problems and understand that giving priority to regional and global interests will eventually protect their national interests and livelihood, the disputes will cease of their own accord. If they allocate their military budget for disputes to a budget for protecting the environment and natural resources instead, their people will be able to enjoy the blessings of the sea and live better lives. If we can demonstrate academically how to effectively improve the sea and transform it from the Sea of Conflict into the Sea of Commons, academics can contribute to the settlement of these disputes.

Main street of Sitangkai, an island on the border of the Philippines and Malaysia (Borneo). The majority of the island's population of 33,334 (as of 2015) lives in pile dwellings in shallow waters. People frequently cross borders to Malaysia and Indonesia. (Photo taken by Shinzo Hayase)

Shinzo Hayase
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Professor Shinzo Hayase was born in Tsuyama, Okayama in 1955. After serving as associate professor at Kagoshima University and professor at Osaka City University, he became professor at the Faculty of International Research and Education of Waseda University in 2013. He specializes in the history of Southeast Asia and holds a Ph.D. in history.
His major publications include: Japanese in Modern Philippine History, Mandala States to Nation-States—World War I in the History of Southeast Asia, A Walk Through War Memories in Southeast Asia, and Mindanao Ethnohistory beyond Nations.