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Sasebo discusses Code of Conduction Negotiations in the South China Sea

By Gretchen Sotebeer for YCAPS

On 19 October 2023, YCAPS held a Community Conversation event in Sasebo, Japan. This event featured Dr. Yoichiro Sato from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. The seminar began with an introduction by Dr. Sato, a frequent past lecturer in Sasebo and an expert on affairs in the South China Sea. Following his introduction, he spoke about the rising tensions in the area. To explain this further, he talked about the international law of the sea and how the sea is claimed based on nautical miles. However, conflicting claims over land and overlapping maritime boundaries have caused the law of the sea to be fairly useless.

After China noticed increasing tensions on the South China Sea, they attempted to pursue a solution. This was embodied in the Declaration of the Code-of-Conduct negotiations (2011). This was meant to establish a stable, peaceful South China Sea. However, it hasn’t been passed and not much is known about it. With China’s actions in regard to other issues in this region, the pursuit of stability and peace seems like it won’t happen anytime soon.

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Dr. Sato spoke next about major issues within the SCS. One such issue was the Nine Dash Claim by China. This claim was determined to have no international legal basis by the Arbitration Tribunal Ruling. However, despite having the obligation to obey the rule of the court, China rejected the ruling. They’ve laid claim to the Spratly Islands, Mischief Reef, and more. This is concerning, as they build limited military installations on rocks that are barely large enough to be called islands.

Dr. Sato argued that a large source of the disputes in the South China Sea come from the fight for resources in the sea bed. He introduced the fascinating perspective that this could potentially be a cause for cooperation rather than dispute. Joint development could be beneficial for many reasons, notably for capital and technological gains.

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Additionally, he argued that fish don’t care about boundaries. This results in the ineffective management of fish stocks. This is a problem that’s been addressed by the UN, following the depletion of tuna fish resources. Because this presents an opportunity for cooperation, Dr. Sato believes this should be a starting point. While there are many other complex issues within the region, he presented the idea of harvesting low hanging fruits. If there is an easier problem, such as the management of fish stocks, they should be solved first before moving on to more complex issues.

Discussant Captain Kentaro Furuya stands at the front of a seminar room, giving his comments on Dr. Ishii's presentation

With the presentation of a suggestion, rather than an answer, to lacking of will or skill, Dr. Sato concluded his seminar. Next, Mr. William Yale spoke about his personal experiences with the Chinese Navy and their lack of appropriate conduct. He also presented some interesting questions to Dr. Sato, such as if he ever saw China renouncing the Code of Conduct process, if ASEAN would ever change their public view on China, and what part the JSDF would play in the SCS in the future. This sparked a lively discussion among attendees and the speakers, leading to the conclusion of the event.