Zachary Keck

How South Asia Resolves Maritime Disputes

South Asia’s use of international tribunals to settle maritime disputes should be emulated in East Asia.

How South Asia Resolves Maritime Disputes
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As Ankit noted earlier today, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled on the maritime dispute between India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal this week.

According to news reports, the court awarded 19,467 square kilometers (7,516 square miles) of a total disputed area of 25,602 km to Bangladesh. More importantly, both countries praised the ruling.

“It is the victory of friendship and a win-win situation for the peoples of Bangladesh and India,” Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali told a news conference on Tuesday, Reuters reported. He added: “We commend India for its willingness to resolve this matter peacefully by legal means and for its acceptance of the tribunal’s judgment.”

India’s Ministry of External Affairs also released a statement hailing the court’s ruling in Bangladesh’s favor. “The settlement of the maritime boundary will further enhance mutual understanding and goodwill between India and Bangladesh by bringing to closure a long-pending issue,” the statement said. “This paves the way for the economic development of this part of the Bay of Bengal, which will be beneficial to both countries.”

This is not the first time that India and Bangladesh have peacefully resolved a territorial dispute. Back in 2011, India and Bangladesh reached a bilateral agreement to resolve their disputed land borders

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This is also not the first time an international tribunal has peacefully resolved a maritime border dispute in South Asia. At the same time it filed the case with India, Bangladesh asked another tribunal to resolve its maritime dispute with Myanmar according to the terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Myanmar, like India, agreed to submit the case to the tribunal and abide by its ruling.

That case, which also concerned resource-rich parts of the Bay of Bengal, was brought before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. The court issued its ruling in in May 2012, and in that case too Bangladesh claimed a victory (it was not a complete victory, however, as the court ruled in Myanmar’s favor on some issues). Although the Myanmar government did not hail the court’s decision as India did, it has honored the ruling.

In both of these cases, the maritime borders had been disputed by the countries in question for decades, and this plagued the larger bilateral relationships. Moreover, in both cases bilateral negotiations to settle the issues failed to resolve them. The failure of bilateral negotiations is what led Bangladesh to seek international arbitration. Notably, both Myanmar and India agreed to submit the cases to the tribunals.

This week’s case is particularly important because India is a far more powerful state than Bangladesh, yet it still decided to allow the maritime borders to be decided by international law. It did so partly to improve ties to Bangladesh, but also because the economic value of the maritime waters could not be realized so long as the dispute persisted. By agreeing to submit the case to an international tribunal, both Bangladesh and India now stand to benefit economically from the resources in the Bay of Bengal.

The situation in South Asia stands in sharp contrast to East Asia, which is riddled with its own maritime border disputes. Although Indonesia and the Philippines recently resolved their dispute through bilateral negotiations, it seems unlikely this can repeated in the more thorny disputes in the East and South China Seas. At the same time, allowing the disputes to continue indefinitely is unsustainable. As was the case with the Bay of Bengal, the ongoing disputes in East Asia hinder the region’s ability to exploit the valuable resources believed to be found in the East and South China Seas. Worst yet, they are creating dangerous standoffs which could ultimately lead to armed conflict.

Maritime East Asia should therefore follow South Asia’s example in using international legal avenues to settle the issues of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas. This should be done with some form of agreement that joint cooperation will follow. Similar to India in South Asia, the key to this type of resolution has to be convincing China — the most powerful state involved — into joining this process. At the same time, ASEAN states resolving their own disputes amongst themselves and Japan agreeing to submit its own disputes with China to international tribunals would help compel China to embrace this avenue of conflict resolution.

It would also be in China’s interest to submit the disputes to international tribunals. To begin with, in some cases such as its disputes with Vietnam it would likely secure favorable rulings. Even in the cases where it fares badly, China’s enormous financial resources would almost guarantee it a large place in the joint development of the resources in the waters. Perhaps most importantly, agreeing to resolve the China Sea disputes through international law would greatly reassure China’s neighbors, which in turn would partially undercut America’s rebalance to the region. By contrast, the continuation of these disputes will empower America’s rebalance as well as Japan’s desire to take on a greater regional role.