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September 23, 2017

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Sovereignty conflicts in Atlantic, Pacific are similar and dangerous

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 deescalates, 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 not only the remarkable revolution in industry and commerce, but also the military. Beijing is spearheading rapid continuing 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 as well as 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 just concluded extensive visit to the region was designed to make this point in dramatic terms.

Meanwhile, a political rather than military confrontation has occurred at the G-20 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.

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