April 16, 2012

This Weekend’s News: Territorial Disputes Across the Indo-Pacific

This weekend’s news highlighted several ongoing territorial disputes across the Indo-Pacific region, from resource-rich Kashmir to the potentially hydrocarbon-rich South China Sea.

On the far West of the Indo-Pacific, The New York Times published a report on Sunday drawing attention to the Siachen Glacier and the intractable territorial dispute between Indian and Pakistan over Kashmir. The report comes on the heels of an avalanche last week that buried 138 Pakistani soldiers and civilians. “In outposts up to 22,000 feet above sea level, the temperature can plunge to 58 below, and linger there for months,” The New York Times reported. “Patrolling soldiers tumble into yawning crevasses. Frostbite chews through unprotected flesh. Blizzards blow, weapons seize up and even simple body functions become intolerable.” Indeed, what makes the Siachen Glacier noteworthy is not that it is the world’s highest battlefield, per se – it is that the conflict there is more a fight “against the mountain, not the man,” The New York Times reported.

The recent avalanche has reignited the debate over fighting on the glacier, a conflict that is expensive with respect to blood and treasure on both sides. “About 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have died at Siachen since 1984, of whom about 90 percent perished from weather-related causes,” according to The New York Times. “Military analysts estimate the deployment costs Pakistan $5 million a month; Indian costs are higher still because of higher troop numbers and because supplies are transported by helicopter.” The renewed debate is bringing to the fore laudable proposals over how to drawn down from the glacier without necessarily exacerbating misperceptions on either side. For anyone who missed this last week, I would draw attention again to Univeristy of Vermont professor Saleem Ali’s proposal to transform that glacier into an environmental peacepark that could pay significant dividends for stability between Pakistan and India. According to a post by Ali last week:

The only people who would genuinely like to visit Siachen are environmental scientists and mountaineers. Creating a zone of visitation from both sides of the border to the Siachen region for scientists and mountaineers and equally sharing any economic revenues from such activity would be a means of operationalizing the resolution of the conflict. Similar to the Antarctic treaty, neither side would relinquish their claims of sovereignty to the area but would place all such claims in abeyance for the higher purpose of science.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the Indo-Pacific, tensions in the South China Sea remain high even as Chinese and Philippine forces draw down after a recent row near the Scarborough Shoal just off the Philippines. Last week, the Philippine Navy tried to arrest Chinese fishermen who were illegally operating in Philippine waters. China deployed three surveillance ships to prevent the arrests, leading to a standoff between the Chinese and Philippine maritime forces. The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that the Philippines and China were making progress on diffusing tensions, with “both countries agreeing to withdraw their diplomatic protests over the impasse.” According to the report, "Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario also said China had withdrawn one of its three surveillance ships at Scarborough Shoal.” However, on Sunday “tension flared anew after China deployed a second ship and an aircraft that briefly hovered over the area,” according to The Washington Post. The report added that “One of the Chinese ships also ordered a Philippine-registered yacht, which was carrying French nationals involved in an archaeological survey, to leave the Scarborough, which lies about 230 kilometers (143 miles) off the Philippine province of Zambales, Philippine officials said.” Tensions in the region remain high today.