A Good-Neighbor Policy for Peace in the South China Sea

Posted on August 13, 2012


What do you call an ocean that sits atop more than 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, provides transit for $5.3 trillion worth of shipborne trade every year, and is bordered by a half-dozen nations with competing maritime and territorial claims? If you’re a geographer, the South China Sea.

If you’re a geostrategist, however, it’s a powder keg –and one that has been heating up dangerously over the past year. Defusing it peacefully will be a test not just of Chinese behavior, but also of the ability of China and the U.S. to accommodate each other’s legitimate interests and maintain the stability on which Asia’s economic dynamism depends.

This month, China and the U.S. traded dueling statements over a buildup of regional tensions. China said that U.S. criticism of its decision to establish a military garrison covering disputed areas of the South China Sea was “a seriously wrong signal.” That followed a tense stare-down this spring and summer involving armed vessels of the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, and China over one of the hundreds of reefs, shoals and islands that dot the sea.

Over the past three years, more than 20 incidents –whether ship collisions, arrests of fishermen or the cutting of cables – – have taken place between Chinese vessels and those ofVietnam, the Philippines and other countries with claims to the sea’s riches. With increased prospecting and drilling for the area’s abundant oil and natural gas resources, the tension promises to intensify.

China’s expansive and imprecise claims to most of the waters, islands and natural resources of the entire South China Sea — which are echoed by Taiwan, the other “one China” — rest on a mixture of hoary historical accounts and international law. The other claimants — Brunei,Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — all base their cases on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is also a party.

Although the Philippines has suggested putting its competing claims before an international tribunal as allowed for in the convention, China has refused to do so, insisting that any resolution should come through talks between the two nations. The U.S., which is pushing for a comprehensive regional solution, has not taken a position on sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, but opposes “the use or threat of force by any claimant” and has declared that “freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea” are “a national interest.”

How to move ahead?

One of the best things the U.S. could do would be to ratify the Law of the Sea, which safeguards U.S. interests in navigation and commerce and provides a strong multilateral framework for resolving such sovereignty disputes. Some Chinese have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of the U.S. invoking a treaty that it has so far failed to accept. Indeed, if Chairman Mao were alive today, he would doubtless want to shake the hands of the 34 Republican senators who said this summer that they will vote against it. In rejecting multilateralism, they are doing exactly what China wants.

In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to devise a code of conduct in the South China Sea for peacefully addressing disagreements. Both sides need to take up that cause, which has seen little progress. In addition, the U.S. and China can build up their ability to avert a crisis by, for example, creating a hot line dedicated to managing maritime emergencies. They can also reduce tensions by promoting joint naval exercises in areas such as counterpiracy and disaster relief.

This fall, the U.S. will elect a new president, and China will usher in a new slate of top leaders. In that supercharged political atmosphere, tough talk by either side will play to each side’s worst instincts. To keep things calm, China will need to temper its bluster over the South China Sea and its coercive economic diplomacy, and the U.S. will need to err on the side of even-handedness. While the State Department was right to issue its Aug. 3 statement deploring the rise of tensions, it aggravated the situation by needlessly singling out Chinese actions. In its standoff with China, for example, the Philippines sent a navy warship to detain Chinese fishermen –an escalation that the Chinese have so far avoided by using maritime survey and patrol vessels, rather than the navy.

The “rebalancing” of U.S. naval forces toward Asia is a welcome development. There is a danger, though, that it could end up precipitating the tensions and conflicts that it seeks to deter, especially if it emboldens countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines to overplay their hands. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has so far deftly navigated the South China Sea. Let’s hope she remembers — as the Chinese captain who just ran his frigate aground off the Philippines has learned — that these are perilous waters.


South China Sea: New Arena of Sino-Indian Rivalry

China ignores India’s exploration, puts Vietnam’s oil block up for global bid

LONDON: While the world focuses on the rising tension between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Beijing and Delhi are also engaged in a quiet struggle in the contested waters. By putting up for international bidding the same oil block that India had obtained from Vietnam for exploration, China has thrown down a gauntlet. By deciding to stay put in the assigned block, India has indicated it’s ready to take up the Chinese challenge. At stake is Chinese opposition to India’s claim to be a regional power.

The conflict between India and China over the South China Sea has been building for more than a year. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in South China Sea and has now reconfirmed its decision to carry on despite the Chinese challenge to the legality of Indian presence.

By accepting the Vietnamese invitation to explore oil and gas in Blocks 127 and 128, India’s state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd, or OVL, not only expressed New Delhi’s desire to deepen its friendship with Vietnam, but ignore China’s warning to stay away. After asking countries “outside the region” to stay away from the South China Sea, China issued a demarche to India in November 2011, underlining that Beijing’s permission should be sought for exploration in Blocks 127 and 128 and, without it, OVL’s activities would be considered illegal. Vietnam, meanwhile had underlined the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign rights over the two blocks being explored.

India decided to go by the Vietnam’s claims and ignore China’s objections.

China has been objecting to the Indian exploration projects in the region, claiming that the territory comes under its sovereignty. Whereas India continues to maintain that its exploration projects in the region are purely commercial, China has viewed such activities as an issue of sovereign rights.

India’s moves unsettled China, which views India’s growing engagement in East Asia with suspicion. India’s decision to explore hydrocarbons with Vietnam followed a July 2011 incident during which an unidentified Chinese warship demanded that a INS Airavat, an amphibious assault vessel, identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea after leaving Vietnamese waters. Completing a scheduled port call in Vietnam, the Indian warship was in international waters.

After an initial show of defiance, India showed second thoughts. In May, India’s junior oil minister R.P.N. Singh told the Parliament that OVL had decided to return Block 128 to Vietnam as exploration there wasn’t commercially viable. Hanoi publicly suggested that New Delhi’s decision was a response to pressure from China. In July 2012, after Vietnam gave OVL more incentives in terms of a longer period to prove commercial viability, India decided to continue the joint exploration. Vietnam decided to extend the OVL contract for hydrocarbon exploration in block 128, reiterating that it valued India’s presence in the South China Sea for regional strategic balance.

In June 2012, state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company, or CNOOC, opened nine blocks for exploration in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Oil block 128, which Vietnam argues is inside its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone granted under the UN Law of the Sea, is part of the nine blocks offered for global bidding by CNOOC.

By putting up for global bidding a Vietnamese petroleum block under exploration by an Indian oil company, China has forced India into a corner. That India would not be cowed by Chinese maneuvers came during the July ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh. There, India made a strong case for supporting not only freedom of navigation but also access to resources in accordance with principles of international law. New Delhi, which so often likes to sit on margins and avoid taking sides, must assume it can no longer afford the luxury of inaction if it wants to preserve credibility as a significant actor in both East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Like other major powers, India is concerned about China’s challenge to the free access to the waters of the South China Sea. The South China Sea passage is too vital for trade and international security to be controlled by a single country.

Meanwhile, China has been doing its best to roil the waters in the South China Sea. Concerns have been rising about China’s claim to the ownership to much of the South China Sea waters and the Chinese Navy’s assertive behavior in the region. China has decided to establish a military garrison on Woody Island in the Paracels in a latest attempt to assert claims over the region. China’s Defence Ministry has openly warned that “combat ready” Chinese naval and air patrols are ready to “protect our maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea.

In a bold display of power and with the help of its friend Cambodia, China prevented ASEAN from even issuing a joint statement for the first time in the organization’s 45-year history. China succeeded in playing divide-and-rule politics, thereby ensuring that the dispute remains a bilateral matter between Beijing and individual rival claimants.

When China suggests that it would like to extend its territorial waters – which usually extend 12 nautical miles from shore – to include the entire exclusive economic zone, extending 200 nautical miles, it is challenging the fundamental principle of free navigation. All maritime powers, including India, have a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea. China has collided with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines in recent months over issues related to the exploitation of East China Sea and South China Sea for mineral resources and oil.

India’s interest in access to Vietnam’s energy resources puts it in direct conflict with China’s claims over the territory. In an ultimate analysis, this issue is not merely about commerce and energy. It is about strategic rivalry between two rising powers in the Asian landscape. If China can expand its presence in the Indian Ocean region, as New Delhi anticipates, India can also do the same in South China Sea waters. As China’s power grows, it will test India’s resolve for maintaining a substantive presence in the South China Sea.

India has so far been a passive observer amidst growing maritime tensions and territorial claims in the region. But now after expanding its footprints in the South China Sea, New Delhi must come to terms with China’s regional prowess. The challenge for New Delhi is to match strategic ambition realistically with appropriate resources and capabilities.

Harsh V. Pant

Revisiting India’s Independence: Geopolitical Significance Then And Now

World War I ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the crippling of the German military juggernaut. The Ottomans had served as a bulwark against Russia’s southward expansion. With the fall of the Ottomans, Britain could carve up the undemarcated Arab lands to secure its energy interests, which were vital to the British economy and military. Britain was also free to use the services of the Arabs in the Great Game with Russia. But soon; Russia, Germany and the US were all rapidly industrializing. Germany began to compete with Britain for economic and military supremacy, outselling British goods with its superior products, akin to the present-day Sino-US gambit for markets and resources. Stalin transformed the Russian economy from an agrarian to an industrial one, but at the cost of the peasantry.

The US’ industrialization process was ironically underwritten by British investors seeking higher returns from what they could get at home, strikingly similar to American corporates investing in China’s industrial growth, in the wake of the Sins-US thaw of 1972, to cut back on rising labour costs at home. The US’ industrial prowess spawned a navy that outclassed the British Navy to become the dominant naval force in the Atlantic. The Chinese are today building on their economic gains to raise a blue water navy.

World War II proved to be the last straw on Britain’s back. It shattered the myth of British invincibility. Britain won the war over its arch rivals, but lost the plot to the US, for, the locus of power took a westward shift. Though Britain retained its Empire, its ability to hold it depended on the US Navy which took over the reins of control of the crucial sea lanes straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans in maintaining British trade and communication links to its colonies. Economically and militarily humbled, the costs of policing the restive colonies – especially India for its sheer size and the struggles within -became untenable for Britain, relative to the benefits.

Both world wars demonstrated the indispensability of oil in fighting a war and running an economy. The British had set up the Iraq Petroleum Company after installing King Faisal to the throne of Baghdad in 1921 and backed Reza Shah in the 1921 coup to consolidate its hold over the Anglo Persian Oil Company and to impede the Bolshevik invasion of India. Indian troops were used in the local wars to expand Imperial overreach. During WWII, the Allies staged military attacks into the Arab heartland from the Karachi port and Baluchistan’s shores (Makran coast), situated at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

Today most of the ports and naval facilities which Pakistan is upgrading with Chinese assistance like Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, which lie along the Makran coast in the Gulf of Oman, in close proximity to India’s north-western coastline. The strategic significance of this area assumes greater proportions when viewed in the backdrop of the widening rift in the US-Pakistan and Sino-US relations, China’s stakes in the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region, the looming uncertainties over Iran and the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

India was integral for the protection of the Allied oil supplies to Europe and the Far East during the war and this scenario hasn’t changed much today when we recount India’s role in safeguarding the Malacca Straits. India was the main base for Allied troop deployment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the WANA region and the Far East, a transit point for air and sea communications and a large pool of manpower. Roosevelt was cognisant of India’s wartime importance and could gauge its usefulness in the past-war world order. He also realized that an Allied victory would help the Soviet Union (SU) become an unrivalled power in Eurasia. With a larger economy, military and territory, Moscow’s appetite for oil would inevitably grow. With no major challenge from Europe and the Far East, Russia could resume her southern drive for oil and warm water ports in the IOR. As Britain would emerge incapable of securing Western oil interests in the Middle East (ME) and the sea lanes of communication and transportation, the US would have to step into the shoes of Imperial Britain and take on the mantle in maintaining the balance of power.

Pivotal to this plan, was India’s support for America after its independence. But how would the plan fare if India passed into the Soviet bloc? It was in this context that Roosevelt made a strong and relentless pitch for independence of an undivided India but convinced of the British arguments that Indian Congress leaders would strive for “strategic autonomy” in matters of defence and foreign policy , he later winked at the partition plan.

At the Margate conference of the British Labour party in the June 1947, Ernest Bevin, the then Foreign Secretary, declared that the division of India would ‘help to consolidate Britain in the ME’. The British ploy was to use the north-western part of India (Pakistan) as bases to forestall Soviet expansionism towards the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf as had been done earlier to halt the Czarist ‘forward thrust’. That the Muslim Leaguers were in cahoots with the British became evident when Pakistan joined the Baghdad Pact with Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Britain in 1955, which became CENTO in 1958 after the US, pitched in to form the “brick wall” against the sweeping tide of communism. British assessments, that a Muslim ally like Pakistan could better manage Western interests in the tribal and lawless frontiers with Afghanistan, proved prophetic when the tribesmen eventually helped wreck the mighty SU.

Leap-frog to the geopolitics of today, and we see India’s stature growing by the day, in the strategic calculus of the three leading powers: US; the only superpower, Russia; a recognised power and China; a rising power. As the US extricates itself from the long war in Afghanistan, Obama has shifted his gaze to the Indo-Pacific. His “pivot” to the Pacific means Washington’s renewed focus to the centre of the global economy: the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

“The Indian Ocean is the world’s energy interstate through which energy supplies pass from the WANA region to the robust economies of East Asia. Half of the supplies traverse the South China Sea (SCS) which connects the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific and is itself a known energy hub. China’s proximity to the SCS is linked to fears of “Finlandisation” (undermining of smaller states by larger nations by economic and military means) of the littoral states. America alone cannot guarantee the stability of this region. India and the US are not formal allies. India’s ruling dispensation cannot build a consensus on an alliance with the US. But because of India’s location astride the Indian Ocean at the heart of maritime Eurasia, the growth of Indian economic and military power benefits the US as it could help in countervailing China and thus relieve the US of the burden of being the world’s dominant power because the US can never see a dominant power in the eastern hemisphere as itself in the western hemisphere”, writes Robert Kaplan, in an insightful account on India’s ‘balancing’ role in the “pivot” policy.

In a similar vein, Secretary Clinton had recently called on India to ‘Look and Engage East’ in a clear sign of America’s growing dependence on India in the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s existing economic policy is export-oriented (export of raw materials and arms). As it needs stable markets over the long haul, Moscow is shifting its focus from the sick Eurozone economies to Asian ones placed on a high-growth trajectory. From this aspect , India will remain as a country of great import. India is the largest importer of heavy military equipment from Russia. But the historic relationship, in recent years, has turned from one of ‘confidence’ to that of ‘apprehension’. India is upset over the time delays and cost over runs in some of the most crucial projects that Russia has been entrusted with.

On the flipside, Russia is aware of the deepening Indo-US ties and the fact that the biggest beneficiary of Indian military purchases through the FMS (non-competitive form of weapons procurement) route; is the US. Pakistan-Russia ties have also changed from one of ‘animosity’ to that of ‘engagement’. And China is high up in Putin’s foreign policy agenda. However, this is not to suggest that Moscow has come to terms with the Sino-Pakistan misdemeanours of the Cold War. Russia has gone to great lengths in supporting India’s permanent candidature to the UNSC and full membership in the SCO in a bid to induce a measure of change in India’s strategic behaviour in conformity to the Sino-Russian strategic agenda. It is equally pertinent to note that both Russia and India still share a similar worldview, have a strategic partnership in place and a string of joint ventures spanning several strategic sectors.

The India-China discord stems from geopolitical and geo-economic complexities as both are vying for economic and military influence, sometimes impinging on each other’s spheres of influence, and has no ethnic animosity behind it, unlike the Indo-Pakistan rivalry which is mired in the tangled partition story with an element of emotion to influence it. Though India and China are at loggerheads over the messy territorial tussle, the dispute around the Dalai Lama, the trade imbalance skewed highly in favour of China and the protectionist impulses on both sides in opening up some sectors for investments, there are healthy signs of confidence building through naval diplomacy.

For India to reconcile with the stigma of the 1962 war debacle, China has to take some unilateral measures, concrete and conspicuous, to dispel the negative perception of “my-enemy’s-friend–is-my-enemy” from India’s national consciousness. And Delhi has to do its bit in allaying China’s core concern that India could “do a China on China”(in the last few years of the Cold War, China ganged up with the US with a dual purpose – for modernisation and destruction of the the SU). India and China ought to take the existing ties forward by engaging in counter-terror(CT) co-operation through a bilateral mechanism since both face threats from terrorism. If China drops its inhibitions to let India into the SCO fold as a full member, then many more security-related regional initiatives could be hammered-out. The 2 distraught neighbours need to invest their constructive energies in troubled places like Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran and South Sudan/Sudan where both have considerable ‘resource interests’ for tripartite

Such steps will go a long way in forging an India-China security partnership which will come handy in defusing a border crisis. India cannot wish away China as its neighbour and this applies to China as well.

India has economic interdependence with each of the three major powers in varying degrees. But economic integration does not last at the time of crisis. India must continue to have creative strategic co-operation with each of these powers to excel in the geopolitical chess game.

Jyoti Prasad Das

Japan tests China’s eastern flank

As tensions continue to swirl in the South China Sea, pressure is also building on China’s eastern flank. The recent escalation of a long-standing dispute between China and Japan over a group of islands highlights significant regional and global changes in the balance of power. Waves from the stormy waters between China and Japan are being felt throughout the world.

Both China and Japan claim the uninhabited Pinnacle Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese). These islands are currently under Japanese control, but both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC) dispute Japanese claims to the islands. The Japanese government “rents” the Pinnacles from a private citizen, and has prevented landings on the islands in order to avoid a diplomatic crisis with China.

The intensification of the longstanding dispute can be traced back to April. Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara announced plans for the Tokyo metropolitan government to purchase the islands from their private titleholder. A fundraising campaign was launched to raise capital for the planned purchase, which brought in over US$16 million. This put Japan’s central government in the awkward position of dealing with a local government influencing an international dispute.

On June 8, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda weighed in on the issue with a call to “nationalize” the islands, telling his cabinet: “There is no question that the Senkakus are an integral part of our country’s territory…From the viewpoint of how to maintain and manage the Senkakus in a calm and stable manner, we are making comprehensive studies on the matter by keeping in touch with the owner…”. [1]

The Chinese government reacted with predictable outrage. An official complaint was lodged the same day as Noda’s speech. Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin stated, “We cannot allow anyone to buy or sell China’s sacred territory.”[2] Chinese patrol vessels have neared the islands, initially refusing to leave after Japanese orders to vacate the area. This incident prompted Japan to summon the Chinese ambassador. The Chinese foreign ministry insisted the islands are Chinese territory, and “does not accept Japanese representations” over the issue.

The foreign ministers of China and Japan met on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Cambodia in order to discuss the issue, but neither side was willing to compromise claims of sovereignty.

On Wednesday, Japan described the entry of three Chinese vessels into Japanese-controlled waters near the Pinnacle Islands as “unacceptable”. Uichiro Nira, the Japanese ambassador to China was recalled to Tokyo during the weekend for high-level consultations with the central government. Nira has warned of the potential for an “extremely grave crisis” between the Asian giants.

Risky strategy
The timing of the ongoing row is particularly interesting. China has recently faced an intensification of maritime disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. The Japanese government may be seeking to put pressure on Beijing at this juncture in order to make common cause with smaller Asian neighbors who are also troubled by China’s rapid expansion of economic and military clout.

Indeed, Japan has announced plans to host a special security summit with ASEAN next year. Although Japan holds meetings with ASEAN on an annual basis, this will be the first conference with a particularly focus on “maritime security”. [3] Clearly, Japan is trying to shore up allies in order to put joint pressure on Chinese territorial claims.

However, this strategy could be a mistake. China has consistently resisted calls to settle its disputes with rival claimants in the South China Sea on a multilateral basis. The Chinese government is well aware that it can exert greater influence on other countries using a bilateral approach. Furthermore, ASEAN itself is divided on the issues of South China Sea sovereignty.

Cambodia, a strong ally of China, is very reluctant to address the issue in an ASEAN versus China context. Thailand has expressed a desire for disputes in the South China Sea to not effect ASEAN cooperation with China. Furthermore, although Vietnam and the Philippines contest China’s claims of sovereignty in the area, they also contest each other’s.

The timing of Japanese moves to “nationalize” the Pinnacle Islands also comes at a crucial period for Japanese domestic politics. Noda recently enacted controversial policies such as restarting nuclear power plants and raising Japan’s sales tax. Former Democratic Party of Japan chief Ichiro Ozawa, nicknamed the “Shadow Shogun”, has abandoned the ruling DPJ in protest, bringing 48 parliamentarians with him into his new “People’s Life Comes First” party.

Noda may be hoping to shore up domestic support by playing the nationalist card. The Japanese public is highly wary of a rising China, which has recently overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and shares a troubled history with the island nation. Orchestrating a limited confrontation with China could be useful for Noda’s political ambitions.

It is important to note that Beijing did not initiate the current escalation. Although this maritime dispute is at least several decades old, Beijing has been content to diplomatically protest Japanese claims while accepting the status quo on the ground. The Japanese government has intensified the longstanding dispute for geo-strategic and political reasons, forcing China to react. Chinese political and military responses to the perceived Japanese provocation closely mirror recent Chinese strategies against Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea.

The motivation for both China and Japan to control the Pinnacle Islands comes less from the islands themselves, and more from the potential for commercial fishing, as well as oil and gas reserves in the area. Sovereignty over the islands would allow for exploration of these natural resources. China and Japan are highly dependent on imported energy, and the ability to tap reserves in the East China Sea would lessen reliance on oil and gas transported through the highly contested South China Sea.

However, the guaranteed drawbacks of open conflict would far outweigh the potential benefits of controlling the islands. China is Japan’s number one trading partner, and as the global economy continues to falter, the two nations need each other’s markets to stay afloat. The mutual benefit of trade and investment between the two nations far exceeds the value of oil, gas and fish in the region.

Japan’s regional ambitions are further restrained by her troubled history. The recent Japanese failure to reach a military pact with South Korea largely stemmed from the tragic historical legacy of Japanese colonialism. China may appear to some as belligerent in its disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam, but Japan will have a much harder time garnering regional sympathy in the unlikely event of military conflict.

Eagle eye on troubled waters
The United States is closely monitoring the political and diplomatic struggle over the Pinnacle Islands. Historically, US involvement in the area is extensive. The islands were occupied by the United States from the end of World War II until 1972, when they were “returned” to Japanese control. Both China and Taiwan dismissed this transfer of authority as a violation of Chinese sovereignty.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in Japan on her way to the recent ASEAN meeting in Cambodia. She inquired about Japanese plans to “nationalize” the islands, with apparent concern for Sino-Japanese relations. She then met with the Chinese foreign minister at the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, with Clinton stressing that the US won’t “take sides in disputes about territorial or maritime boundaries”. [5]

This is a pointed change in tone from earlier that week, when a State Department official said that the US would be required to come to Japan’s aid in case of attack by a third party on the disputed Islands: “The Senkakus would fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security because the Senkaku Islands have been under the administrative control of the government of Japan since they were returned as part of the reversion of Okinawa in 1972,” said the unnamed official. [5]

Article Five of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty is essentially a mutual-defense clause. It is a cornerstone of US Asia policy, cementing the alliance between the US and Japan. However, its application in case of skirmishes over the Pinnacle Islands could lead to disastrous consequences.

The US neither wants to appear as an ineffective ally, nor to risk World War III over a small maritime clash. Clinton’s efforts to reach out to the Japanese and Chinese governments, as well as her claims that the US does not favor one territorial claimant over another, are part of a concerted effort to disuse a potential powder keg.

China is wary of American intentions in the region, especially given the US “strategic pivot” towards Asia. Any attempts by the US to openly back Japan in the ongoing maritime dispute will be seen as interference in China’s internal affairs, and could push the mainland and Taiwan even closer. As evidenced by the failed South Korea-Japan pact, nationalism can still trump traditional geopolitics in the region.

The Chinese government is highly sensitive to the possibility of the US developing a regional alliance to counter China’s growing influence. Although China has no strategic interest in initiating a conflict while its economic power continues to rise, the Chinese leadership cannot back down from territorial disputes for political and strategic reasons. China wants to be treated with the fear and respect that a superpower deserves, and some hawkish elements within the Middle Kingdom believe that a military show of force may be the only method of earning such respect.

The conflict over the Pinnacle Islands will in all likelihood remain a political war of words. Neither Japan nor China has enough to gain from an open clash to justify the enormous risks that such a conflict would entail. At the same time, neither government wants to appear weak in front of a historic enemy and current rival.

Japan’s slow-motion political crisis, the leadership transition in Beijing, and the upcoming election in the US nearly guarantee the perpetuation of a purely symbolic conflict. Global economic woes are an additional incentive to avoid unpredictable adventurism. Nevertheless, symbolic conflicts are an important window into real shifts in the balance of power. The violent currents in the East China Sea reflect a change in tides as China continues its rapid expansion of economic and military clout.

1. Japan Weighs Buying Islands Also Claimed by China, NASDAQ, Jul 9, 2012.
2. China: Japan can’t purchase Diaoyu Islands, China Digital Times, Jul 9, 2012.
3. Japan plans ASEAN sea security summit, Japan Times, Jul 11, 2012.
4. US urged to respect China’s interests, China Daily, Jul 13, 2012.
5. Japan plans ASEAN sea security summit, Japan Times, Jul 11, 2012.

Brendan P O’Reilly 

Posted in: Economy, Politics