From San Francisco to the South China Sea

OSAKA – Territorial and maritime disputes among China, Taiwan, and several Southeast Asian countries are roiling the South China Sea region, with little prospect of resolution anytime soon. But the current uneasy status quo may be tenable, so long as the parties embrace serious confidence-building measures through multilateral forums while maintaining effective deterrence vis-à-vis China and a commitment not to use offensive force.

Naturally, China is eager to exclude interference by extra-regional great powers, particularly the United States, preferring bilateral negotiations with weaker regional claimants that it can more easily dominate. Extra-regional powers, however, cite the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea – specifically, the freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage – to justify their involvement.

Given that the South China Sea disputes stem from overlapping claims to “exclusive economic zones,” not open ocean, the UN convention is not entirely relevant. But another international agreement does provide some guidance for settling these disputes: the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which entered into force in 1952 and officially ended World War II in the Asia-Pacific region.

Under the treaty, Japan renounced its sovereignty claims over the Spratly and the Paracel Islands, but did not reassign them to any single country. As a result, these islands remain legally under the collective custody of the treaty’s 48 other parties – including two claimants to the islands, the Philippines and Vietnam.