Ocean currents and conflicts
Unfolding events could spark wars in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, while underscoring the importance of the oceans in both commerce and conflict. Argentina, Britain, China and the Philippines are the principal players, but the global community of nations is also directly involved.
Beijing just announced withdrawal of fishing vessels from tiny Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, and the government of the Philippines has made a similar move. This de-escalates, at least for the moment, a continuing, increasingly tense confrontation between the two nations.
Both claim conflicting jurisdictions over the South China Sea, including Scarborough, known in China as Huangyan Island. Historically China has maintained control, but in the 1990s the Philippines began to claim authority. Since April, when Philippine ships began to occupy positions near Scarborough, the conflict has become a crisis.
China steadily expands in international power and influence, including its remarkable revolution in industry and commerce, and the military. Beijing is spearheading the rapid construction of enormous new strategic naval capacities. China traditionally has been cautious in using military force beyond the national borders ― but that may be changing.
The United States, the principal maritime trading and naval power in the world, inevitably is involved in both dimensions. The Obama administration recently announced that greater strategic priority would be devoted to the Pacific. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's recent visit to the region was designed to make this point in dramatic terms.
Meanwhile, a political rather than military confrontation has occurred at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner attempted to hand British Prime Minister David Cameron an envelope regarding the disputed Falkland Islands, located off the coast of her country. He rightly refused to accept the highly charged present, defusing her melodrama.
The Falklands, in Argentina referred as the Malvinas Islands, was the scene in 1982 of a brief but extremely bitter war. The military regime in Buenos Aires seized the islands in a surprise move; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately reacted with determination to retake them.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's initial reaction was that mounting a military expedition to take back the territory would be unwise. The extremely small amount of territory and the enormous distances involved were crucial considerations in developing his view.
However, Secretary of State Alexander Haig and others backed the British, and were ultimately successful. A British expedition recaptured the outpost in a remarkably impressive demonstration of military effectiveness. Nonetheless, American communications and logistical support was essential to the success.
The British government is committed to resolving the long-running dispute with Argentina by referendum next year. The people who live in the Falklands will be allowed to decide their own fate.
Great Britain before World War II was the paramount maritime power in the world, and remains important. London is a global insurance industry center, populated by firms rooted initially in maritime salvage as well as shipping operations.
Sea-based commerce has generated some of the most durable international law, and arguably has become even more consequential with modern globalization. This indicates the usefulness as well as moral importance of the rule of law.
Britain and the U.S. have an opportunity to work together, within existing regional and international institutions, to try to mitigate the China-Philippine conflict. At a minimum, this dangerous but generally overlooked confrontation should be receiving more public discussion.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at email@example.com.