In this age of digital information, shuttle diplomacy, and cyber warfare, talking about multinational maritime relationships might seem arcane. But recent events warrant a closer look into the U.S. actions in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea, because these interferences could be counterproductive to our national security, our commerce, and our information connectivity.
The U.S. Korean Sea military exercise, the State Department's interjection of "national interest" into the South China Sea, and the undersea communications cables in these critical waters might turn these Asian seas into troubling waters.
The United States and South Korea recently started the first in a series of large-scale naval exercises off Japan and the Korean Peninsula despite objections from China. The exercises, as claimed by the U.S. and South Korea, are meant as a show of force and a "first step" in trying to deter North Korea from acts of aggression in the region.
Unfortunately, this will prove to be a miscalculation. These military exercises may give North Korea more reason to show its defiance. If any accident happens during these drills, a regional conflict might erupt as a result.
While the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are dragging on with no end date in sight, the U.S. cannot afford to be involved in another conflict. The best way to contain North Korea is through diplomatic engagement, not through a show of force.
China has been a great facilitator in the Six-Party Talks, but disappointingly these drills will set back previous progresses of the Six-Party Talks and further deteriorate the stability of the Korean peninsula.
Diplomacy should be the preferred method for the resolution of the regional tension on the Korean peninsula. And if the U.S. focuses more on international financial institutions and banking systems when dealing with North Korea, it will likely have more impact.
It seems that the difficulties of the North Korean situation have not dissuaded the U.S. from injecting itself further into the territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea. Again, in this region, the issues will be best resolved bilaterally by the local countries involved.
On November 4, 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed by the ten foreign ministers of ASEAN countries and China. The signatory countries pledged to resolve their sovereignty disputes in a peaceful manner through direct negotiations.
In addition, as of January 2009, China settled its land borders with twelve of its neighbors. And in its negotiations, China did not assert its economic and military advantage. Instead, it has become more conciliatory in bargaining with its neighbors.
China even offered concessions, particularly in the case of Russia. When the two countries concluded their border demarcation along the Heilongjiang River, China agreed to have the border run through Heixiazi Island, giving China only half of the island when it could have claimed the whole.
While most of its land border disputes have been resolved, China still has a number of unresolved sea border issues. And China will resolve its sea borders with its neighbors much the same way as it settled it land borders, without third party nations involved.
If the U.S. has any border dispute with Canada or Mexico, most likely it will not want any third party to be involved in the resolution. Most of the Asian nations probably feel the same way about their own borders.
Being able to gain commercial passage in the South China Sea is not just a U.S. "national interest", it is an "international interest". But we have to keep in mind that the borders and territorial rights still belong to the sovereignty of the local countries.
It is not a good policy to "internationalize" bi-lateral border disputes or "militarize" the vicinities of other nation's territorial waters. This is especially true because there is a more urgent imperative that demands total international cooperation and trust -- the assurance of undersea cables for the connectivity of our information-driven global society.
In May 2010, the EastWest Institute (EWI) hosted the First Worldwide Cybersecurity Summit in Dallas, Texas. EWI brought together leaders of governments, businesses and civil society from forty nations to determine new measures to ensure the security of the world's digital infrastructure. The Obama administration sent Howard Schmidt, Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator to address the attendees and to solicit inputs.
During the summit, the undersea communications cables were identified as an extremely critical component to the global cyber network and it was emphasized that "satellites cannot handle the volume of traffic -- the available capacity is not even close, without cables, markets would freeze."
It was also reported that "the impact of such a failure on international security and economic stability could be devastating...There is no sufficient alternative back-up in the case of a catastrophic loss of regional or global connectivity. A single disaster in such an area could cause catastrophic loss of regional and global connectivity."
The complexities of the South China Sea's historic territorial disputes are already making cable repairs difficulty. Any further tension could jeopardize global financial services, media, transportation, and energy industries, not to mention essential government services and national security.
While the U.S. rarely ever confronts other nations spying and infringing on its territorial waters, with rapid development of technology and training of personnel, in the near future some other country might want to test the limits of the U.S. territorial waters.
A more reasonable approach is for the U.S. to set an example by leading in maritime diplomacy. Respecting each nation's sovereignty and borders, including their territorial sea and exclusive economic zones, allows the disputes to be resolved peacefully and directly by the countries involved; and to share the economic interest fairly.
Fred Teng is a senior executive of a publication on China's current affairs, and he is an active member of a number of U.S. China policy institutions