For the second consecutive year, one of our most engaging and inspiring FCIL colleagues, Dan Wade, suggested that a group of SIS members get together informally to read and then discuss a book relevant to our field of librarianship, international law. He put forward the title above and several of us joined in on the read and discovered that doughnuts, coffee and other perks awaited us in our efforts. Hard work this, am I right? In any case, Dan put forward The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, a “hot topic” book, as confirmed by the appearance just days before our meeting of an ASIL Insight essay: J. Ashley Roach, China’s Shifting Sands in the Spratlys, ASIL Insights (July 15, 2015), http://www.asil.org/insights/volume/19/issue/15/chinas-shifting-sands-spratlys.
On Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 9:30 a.m., the group met at the at the Philadelphia Convention Center and embarked on a lively discussion, provoked by several of us remarking on the journalistic style of the book, in contrast to the monographs many of us buy, use, and recommend to students for research. Dan asked us what we thought of this approach. Responses were mixed; the clear and simpler style kept many of us more engaged with the recitals of colonial and post-colonial history that were crucial to understanding the nature of this international dispute. The narrative and maps presented effectively a narrative about tiny islands, coral and guano, that dot the “South China Sea.” (These quotations started to seem necessary after reading that this area of the sea goes by other names depending upon whether one’s perspective is Philippine, Vietnamese, etc.). After guano was harvested, rumors in more recent times have arisen to the effect that more valuable resources lie beneath some of the islands: oil and/or natural gas. So far, no discoveries have confirmed this.
Many of us are familiar with the classical international law views of the sea as well as the more recent regime, made formal after the Second World War, articulated in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). One of our participants observed that the rumored oil and gas would likely fall within national boundaries and not in the disputed areas, given that the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area not more than 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastal baseline (UNCLOS, art. 57). The 12-mile limit of a territorial sea is therefore much smaller and part of the sovereign territory. Our author described in detail the efforts of competing jurisdictions to build up tiny islands, install airstrips and the like, asserting evidence of control. Author Bill Hayton contrasted the “freedom of the seas” championed by Grotius in the 17th century with the more restrictive view of his contemporary John Selden, who believed some measure of restriction and control may be exercised by a coastal state. The compromise reflected in UNCLOS was put into an interesting light by Hayton, who describes a “mandala” view of power among southeast Asians at the beginning of the 19th century that contrasted with Europeans. A ruler’s power in their view diminished as one moved away from the center of a kingdom near the sovereign. The Westphalian view has been that rulers have the same degree of power throughout a territory and its limit is the boundary (Hayton, 46). Hayton seems to suggest that the western view is now one source of the tension and counterclaims in the South China Sea.
Another important question one of us posed to the group was to ask, what are the real current disputes and the role played by the hypothetical value of the resources there? The assertion of sovereignty by China PRC is the principal one of concern to the United States, even though claims and concerns have been asserted, over time, by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. It was noted in our group that it was very unfortunate that this territorial dispute had become so fraught within China-U.S. relations. Just as in the days of Selden and Grotius, sovereignty disputes sometimes serve to promote social cohesion, and the audience for the dispute (from a government’s perspective) may be an internal one as well. In military terms, any future success in asserting control of the South China Sea by China could prevent mobilization of the U.S. military in the area. Closing the sea in that way to U.S. maneuvers could be a game-changer, since only trade and marine exploration are protected in the EEZ (Article 56 (1) (b), UNCLOS), although this is precisely where ambiguity has arisen. Participant John Wilson contributed his knowledge of some theories of international relations as well, and this enhanced our perspective on the issues as did Gabriela Femenia’s work with a faculty member who studies this dispute.
This group book discussion would make a great annual meeting activity going forward, and thanks from all to Dan Wade for once again inaugurating what may become a deeply valued tradition. Thanks to Gabriela, our Philly local, who thought globally but acted locally to bring us the super-special, amazing doughnuts from Federal Donuts with flavors like red velvet cake, curry (saw this one on the web site) and more. This is one international debate that ended with lots of sugar and smiles! The duty may fall to Lyo to find us doughnuts like this in Chicago. No pressure…. see you next year!