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Dialogue and the Deep Blue Sea

NEW YORK – A Chinese patrol vessel’s attack on a Vietnamese fishing boat last week is just the latest incident demonstrating Asia’s urgent need to act swiftly, together with the United States, to develop a mechanism for managing territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Neither side can afford to let Asia – a driving force of the global economy – be derailed by an escalation of the maritime conflict.

Avoiding an adverse outcome will depend on claimant states’ willingness to place a high priority on strategic cooperation – including on energy exploration, fishing rights, and the maintenance of open sea-lanes. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations – which seeks to unite Southeast Asian governments and key external partners, including China, along economic lines – should be allowed to facilitate the dialogue that is needed. After last year’s ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where efforts to issue a joint communiqué reached an impasse, Asia’s leaders must demonstrate a renewed determination to achieve effective regional cooperation.

But domestic politics is impeding progress, with leaders manipulating nationalist sentiment to distract attention from economic and political uncertainty. As countries hedge US support by cultivating China and other ASEAN members, they might be tempted to exclude some of their neighbors by committing to bilateral agreements behind closed doors.

In fact, this caution is not entirely unfounded. America’s failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – the preeminent international legal mechanism for resolving maritime disputes – is undermining its credibility as a mediator in the South and East China Sea conflicts.