Falklands deal Britain and Argentina: Oil agreement sets precedent for disputes elsewhere

September 25, 1995

THE AGREEMENT that Britain and Argentina will sign for joint oil exploitation of the seabed east and west of the Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands does nothing to resolve the dispute of sovereignty over those forlorn sheep lands in the South Atlantic. But it does everything to set that dispute aside and get on with business.

It sets an example that could well get China and six neighbors past a similar dispute to rocky outcroppings in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands, which are valueless in themselves but possibly surrounded by oil and subject to belligerent action.

After Argentina invaded the islands it had always claimed, Britain reconquered them in a war in 1982 that was not worth the prize to either side. Now the two claimants have decided not to allow the dispute to prevent oil exploration. The deal will let Britain grant oil rights east of the islands and a joint commission will grant oil rights to the west. Revenues will be split, in Britain's favor. The companies can get on with the job.

The occasional belligerency between China and Vietnam, and the Philippines with Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei involve islands in the South China Sea of even less value than the Falklands but a seabed of equal allure. A deal that split differences and got on with exploration in an orderly fashion could resolve that problem, too.

Now President Carlos Menem of Argentina and Prime Minister John Major of Britain will get together in New York next month. Argentina still wants to buy out the British-descended shepherds of the Falklands, who don't want to sell. But the two governments have learned that civilized people can disagree and still get on with mutually beneficial business.

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