East Sea: Spitsbergen Treaty and the lesson for Vietnam

Last update: 14:00 | 12/12/2016

Thelessons learned from the Spitsbergen treaty can transmit messages to the approachesto solve the East Sea dispute. Here is the perspective of Dr. Enrico Fels,University of Bonn, Germany on a number of issues of the East Sea conflict.

Experiencefrom the past


Dr. Enrico Fels

The absence of the security community in Asia – Pacific is a big problem. In my speech at Yale University, I spoke about useful experiences from the past of Europe to the East Sea through the Spitsbergen Agreement. 

My presentation focused on a barely known treaty regarding the archipelago of Spitsbergen (renamed Svalbard in Norwegian). The Spitsbergen Treaty was signed in 1920. It entered into force in 1925 and concerned the political status of this important archipelago and its adjacent islands in the Arctic Sea north of Norway.

Today, 43 states are signatories to the treaty - including several states from Asia-Pacific: China, India, Japan, Australia and, most recently, North and South Korea. The archipelago Spitsbergen was discovered in the late 16th century and was quickly contested due to its location and rich resources.

The English as well as the Danish-Norwegian kings claimed ownership, while other important regional states like France, the Netherlands, Spain, or Russia saw it as terra nulls, i.e. an area to be exploited by whomever had the willingness and the ability to do so. Fights between ships and hunting parties erupted, people got killed.

However, the tensions were seriously defused when at the end of the First World War in the aftermath of the Versailles peace negotiations sovereignty over Spitsbergen it was eventually awarded to Norway, a regional middle power. Furthermore, the treaty demilitarized the archipelago and allowed for all signatories to exploit its minerals, fish in the territorial waters, conduct scientific explorations or make business on Spitsbergen.

Importantly, despite some disagreements during the more than 90 years of the treaty, the agreement was durable and has allowed for stability and joint exploitation and economic development. Even during the Cold War did Norway, a founding member of NATO, not hamper Soviet access to the waters or the territories. Russia’s navy still depends on unhampered passage through the area today in order to reach the Atlantic.

The message from the Spitsbergen Agreement

The lesson from the Spitsbergen treaty can convey a message for the approach to the East Sea dispute settlement.

I argued in my talk that while we have to acknowledge that China as a great power with rising means has indeed legitimate security interests, it is important for the Chinese leadership to understand that regional states will resist the installation of a “Chinese Monroe Doctrine”.

In this context, it is surprising that policymakers in China, perhaps bedazzled by their nation’s impressive aggregate power development, have not realized that their confrontational policy over the last years has triggered an Asian reaction, which has helped not only to seriously hamper the development of China’s relational power, but has greatly helped the US to increase own relational power amidst a China that has essentially caught up only in aggregate terms.

Chinese missiles on Phu Lam Island (satellite images). Fox News

Thus, the US is using China’s assertive policies in the East Sea disputes in order to maintain its strong position in the region - which in turn would suggest that also the Chinese leadership should have an interest in solving the disputes diplomatically.

The “Spitsbergen Approach” (awarding sovereignty over most of the East Sea territories to non-great power claimants, full-demilitarization of the territories, non-discrimination in access to the territories including exploitation and exploration) would help to defuse the regional tensions among claimants, ease the negative impact of great power rivalry on the region’s small and middle powers and allow for joint economic and political progress tot are place.

For this to happen, however, the political-historic romanbisation of the islands and territories has to be reduced among all claimant countries. At the same time, China will probably only be persuaded to retreated from occupied territories if it gains some form of security guarantees that ease China‘s sense of insecurity in its engagement with the US. While this makes the application of the “Spitsbergen Approach” more difficult, it does not preclude finding a diplomatic solution.

Overcoming the security dilemma and building a security community proofed to be vital for Europe’s further economic progress and regional stability. I argued that the “Spitsbergen Approach” can be seen as a template for finding a diplomatic solution tailored the dynamics in Asia’s most troubled water.

The role of the EU in Asia-Pacific

Biển Đông: Hiệp định Spitsbergen và kinh nghiệm châu Âu cho Việt Nam

Despite all efforts and much talk the EU’s external capacity has remained rather limited and is likely to remain so despite the great economic and security interests European states have in Asia-Pacific. It is clear that Europe’s economic well-being is vey much dependent on good trade relations with Asia-Pacific, which makes political stability important.

There are several reasons for this incapacity of Europe. Firstly, European states largely prefer to keep an independent (though interconnected) foreign policy, which is one of the fundamental rights of every sovereign nation states.

Secondly, despite further unification and some weakening of the nation states within the EU, European states have - due to their long histories and different paths of development - often different objectives when it comes to international topics. In the past, EU member states found it extremely difficulty to agree on important issues such as the war against Iraq, the Libyan Intervention, policies towards Russia, the Syrian crisis, fighting the Islamic State etc.

Still, despite these factors, there seems to be room for an important role of the EU in regional dispute settlement: Given its limited agenda in Asia’s great power politics, the EU might serve in the diplomatic capacity of an “honest broker” in solving disputes among regional states.

Thus, the fact that the EU is not part of the region’s great power rivalry and its relative internal weaknesses and contradictions might actually provide it with strength as it makes it attractive for regional states to involve the EU as an independent third party for solving regional disputes e.g. via the 'Spitsbergen Approach’.

Noted by Nguyen Hoa
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