Diplomacy on the Rocks: Disputes and Solutions over Rocky Outcroppings from the South China Sea to the Arctic

We (Brown Junior Sophie Purdom and I) organized a great workshop last Friday in Providence.  We had a wonderful cast of participants and the variety of experts gave us insights that we might have otherwise missed.

The incredible speakers ranged from Law of the Sea Experts (U of Maine Law School’s Charles Norchi), to Naval War College academics (James Kraska, Walter Berbrick) and scholars from Brown’s Environmental Institute (Caroline Karp, Siri Veland and Ewige Cavan).   The Coast Guard Academy (Becca Pincus) contributed more ideas on the Arctic, and we enjoyed the presence of the Thai Navy (Kovit Talasophon), the Korean Coast Guard (Sukkyoon Kim) and, last but not least, diplomats like Ambassador Chas Freeman and Icelandic DCM Erlingur Erlingsson.

All were accomplished in their fields and lively presenters; together, they created a dialogue that looked at these issues from all angles, legally, environmentally and practically.    The icing on the cake, or at least the rainbow of sprinkles, were Brown student presentations on specific issues, and one big idea:  An Arctic Peace Park!   The whole proceedings are at this link.Wrap up

Summary:    Disputes over rocks grow from law of the sea claims (but remember islands have fresh water, rocks do not; islands convey economic zones, rocks do not) and spin dreams of hydrocarbons and fish or just of power and control.   These disputes are unlikely to find solutions in legal arguments, including the Philippines case against China at the tribunal over the south China sea, but the problems can be managed. We all have an interest in seeing them resolved, or at least shelved continentally, because we all need environmental standards and navigation regulations to apply, especially in sensitive areas like the Arctic.   The Arctic council does a very good job of expanding standards and promoting cooperation, but we shouldn’t expect it to tackle sovereignty and other claims.    In the South China sea, just about all the features that can be occupied have been occupied, so it’s time to accept that the “Go” board is full and see what we can do about settling things in place.   In the end, we need the political will to manage the resources and opportunities jointly and move away from sterile disputes about who owns what.

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