EEZ Flashpoints

Dec 19, 2013

The jacket cover description of my book, Lethal Trajectories, starts with this prophecy: “The year is 2017, and a crisis of catastrophic proportions is in the making. A conflict over oil has brought China and Japan to the brink of war.“  Could it be happening now? Consider this:

On November 26, 2013, two American B-52 bombers flew unannounced through China’s newly created Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the contested Diaoyu Islands – called Senkuku Islands by Japan – as a direct challenge to China’s ADIZ. A miscalculation could have triggered a larger conflict between the two global superpowers.
Similar flashpoints, revolving around control of undersea mineral rights – think oil and natural gas – and national prestige, exist elsewhere. The U.N. established Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) define and extend the territorial lines delineating control of undersea minerals to 200 nautical miles beyond a nation’s coastal baseline. Problem is, there is often an overlap in EEZ boundary lines, and the mechanism for resolving such disputes is murky.  
The China/Japan dispute is a case in point. An aerial view of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands reveals a small clump of uninhabited land of no apparent value to anyone. Its value is hidden under 5000 feet of water surrounding the islands; the Chunxiao natural gas and oil fields. For energy-hungry nations like China and Japan, it is a coveted asset loaded with complexities:

  1. The contested islands reside in a sector of the East China Sea that is roughly 360 nautical miles wide. With a 200 nautical mile EEZ boundary, there is an overlap of 40 nautical miles representing about 40,000 square kilometers of ocean.
  2. China defines its “coastal” baseline as the continental shelf and not coastline. This, of course, extends their EEZ boundary.
  3. Chunxiao is one of four fields in the Xihu trough running near the islands. China has set up a drilling operation that Japan claims may be siphoning off oil/gas from its side of the EEZ.  Taiwan and South Korea also have an interest in this area, and its resolution could impact how a number of contested areas in the East and South China Seas are resolved.
  4. As energy-strapped nations look increasingly to off-shore drilling to meet their growing energy needs, look for aggressive interpretations of the EEZ boundary lines to occur elsewhere.  

It is surprising that the media has not picked up on the real issues between China and Japan in the East China Sea. If and when they do, they might also awaken to the plethora of EEZ flashpoints dotting the globe. For one, the Polar area could be troublesome as climate-induced summer ice melts in the Arctic Sea open up vast new areas for undersea exploration. The EEZ overlaps could impact the U.S., Canada, Russia and others. 
In the calculus of the perfect storm – the collision of economic, energy, environmental and nationalistic expectations - the EEZ flashpoints could trigger the storm. Nations would be wise to revisit the 1982 United Nations Convention and Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) Treaty to clarify the dispute mechanisms for resolving EEZ claims before the ticking time bombs explode.
In summary: The China/Japan conflict in the East China Sea may be an omen for other EEZ flashpoints, and our fossil fuel dependencies are fueling the flames. It’s time to; a) get educated on EEZ issues, b) engage our elected officials, and c) rethink our long term fossil fuel energy strategies.

For more information, please download our free Weathering the Storm Guide:

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