Resolving Conflicts on the High Seas

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In negotiation over a limited pool of resources, conflicts often spring up over what constitutes a fair agreement. If two business partners are going their separate ways, they might have different ideas about how their shared assets should be divided, for example. Currently, such a dispute is playing out between China and four of its Southeast Asian neighbors over claims to the South China Sea. According to a report issued by the research organization International Crisis Group (ICG), recapped by Jane Perlez in the New York Times in late July, the disputes have reached an impasse that could lead to an open conflict.

The South China Sea is coveted for numerous reasons. Nations facing depleted coastal waters view it as an abundant source of fish. Claimants to the sea are also eager to pursue oil and gas exploration in the sea’s underwater ground, the ICG reports. In addition, the sea is a well-traveled hub of commerce and an important strategic pathway for the United States and its allies.

On July 23, China approved the deployment of troops to guard disputed islands claimed by both Vietnam and the Philippines. The same day, Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III revealed plans to buy aircraft, including attack helicopters, that could be used in the disputed territory, reports Perlez. China and the Philippines have competing claims over several areas of the sea.

The ICG assigns blames to both China and its neighbors for the escalating tension. China’s aggressive claims to South China Sea islands and the sea’s energy resources can be vague and weakly argued, the ICG suggested. Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines have called on outside allies in their strong defense of their own claims to the sea. The sea is mostly patrolled by civilian vessels run by national governments, which the ICG warns “operate under looser chains of command” than navy ships and “engage more readily in skirmishes.”

This type of conflict over scarce resources can be particularly tricky to resolve. Even when negotiators believe they sincerely want to reach an outcome that is fair to all, their perceptions of what constitutes a fair agreement are likely to be self-serving. As a result, they are likely to believe they deserve a greater share of a given resource than an unbiased observer would judge to be fair, write Max H. Bazerman and Don A. Moore in their book Judgment in Managerial Decision Making (Wiley, 2009).

In the case of the South China Sea conflict, an international mediation effort may be required to help parties negotiate a peaceful resolution. Business negotiators facing this type of resource division may be able to avoid conflict by spending time thinking about each party’s contributions and claims. By consciously taking another person’s perspective, we become equipped to consider the situation with greater rationality and fairness.

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