South China Sea: The “Heartsea”?

Posted on August 21, 2012


Last March retired U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Patrick Walsh gave aninterview with Asahi Shimbun in which he likened the South China Sea to a new “strategic pivot”—nooooo, not the pivotword again!—in the Asia-Pacific region. Admiral Walsh summoned up the ghost of land-power theorist Sir HalfordMackinder to illustrate his analogy.

Mackinder was a founding father of geopolitics and a foil for Alfred Thayer Mahan. In an indirect riposte to Mahan’s thesis that command of the sea was a decisive force in history, Mackinder summarized his argument (in 1919) thus: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Bracing stuff. Eurasia was the World-Island in Mackinder’s lexicon, while the Heartland lay in Central Asia. It was the “geographic pivot of history,” to borrow the title of his famous 1904 essay. The great power that held sway over the region could exploit its “interior lines,” along with rapid advances in land transportation—mainly railroads—to move forces about more nimbly than navies could around the periphery. Their geographic positions situated Russia and Germany for struggle over the Heartland. Mackinder thus foreshadowed the bloodlettings of the world wars.

Walsh’s thesis is intriguing. Some thoughts about the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, though. Is the South China Sea really a watery Heartland (Heartsea?) from which a dominant power can rule the rule the World-Ocean—presumably the combined Pacific and Indian oceans—and thence the world? This seems a bit much. It certainly occupies a central position at the juncture between the two oceans.

The power that commanded South China Sea waters and skies, and could exclude rivals, would enjoy the advantage of easy, relatively economical strategic mobility. It could move forces to and fro from southeast to northeast, or into the broad Pacific. Thus far the analogy to the Heartland holds up. Interior lines work.

On the other hand, there exists an exterior line of communication by which mariners and airmen can bypass the South China Sea. Ships and planes could pass between northern Australia and the Indonesian archipelago, avoiding a central power that ruled Southeast Asia. It would have been far harder to circumvent Mackinder’s Heartland, bounded as it was by the Himalayas and Hindu Kush to the south.

There’s also the small problem that the power that commanded the Heartland—Russia, then the Soviet Union—ended up ruling neither all of Eurasia nor the world. Central Asia was a central position, but it proved harder than Mackinder foresaw to harness it effectively. In this sense the South China Sea, which is heavily populated, rich in resources and commerce, and home to well-trafficked shipping routes, may actually be a better Heartland than the arid one that captured Mackinder’s imagination.

Admiral Walsh may have conjured up Mackinder to make a point about how the Heartland thesis influenced strategists a century ago. Those who subscribed to the idea of a geographic pivot were apt to attach inordinate value to controlling Central Asia. In that sense the age of Mackinder offers a cautionary tale for today. China is presumably cast in the role of Russia when you transpose the Heartland thesis to Southeast Asia.

Beijing certainly places enormous value on its “indisputable” claims to regional islands and waters. But there’s no Germany nearby to act as a counterweight to an aspiring hegemon. Nor does a faraway great power—a Great Britain—occupy an India, adjacent to the Heartland, from which it can contend for mastery of the geographic pivot. The United States’ strategic position in Southeast Asia cannot begin to approximate that held by British India a century ago.

A parting note on the Heartsea thesis. The South China Sea is not the first expanse for which pundits have advanced extravagant claims. Maritime enthusiasts on the subcontinent are fond of quoting an apocryphal passage from Mahan, to the effect that whoever commands the Indian Ocean will rule the world in the 21st century. If not just India but all powers with interests in South Asia embraced that logic, the region could become a crucible for conflict—whether the logic is sound or not. Policymakers, strategists, and ordinary citizens must think carefully before accepting the seductive theories put forward by a Mackinder or Mahan. Caveat emptor.

The Diplomat

Dispute Over Islands Reflects Japanese Fear of China’s Rise

Japanese activists raised flags early Sunday on Uotsuri Island, part of the small archipelago known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu.

ISHIGAKI, Japan — When the flotilla of 21 fishing boats arrived at an island chain at the center of a growing territorial dispute with China, the captains warned the dozens of activists and politicians aboard not to attempt a landing.

Ten of the activists jumped into the shark-infested waters anyway, swimming ashore on Sunday and planting the rising sun flag that evokes painful memories of Imperial Japan’s 20th-century march across Asia.

“We feel that they dragged us into an international incident,” said Masanori Tamashiro, the captain of one of the boats that made the eight-hour voyage to the uninhabited outcroppings northwest of here called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

That feeling is widely shared in Japan, where a small band of nationalists has pushed the country to assert itself more boldly to counter China and South Korea’s explosive economic rise and China’s quickly evolving territorial ambitions.

The nationalists have gained traction for their cause in recent months by taking advantage of the government’s political weakness, forcing the governing party to take a tougher stand on the Senkakus.

But the activists are also tapping into a widespread anxiety over China, and the resulting acrimony over the Senkakus has already become a potential international flash point, raising the specter that the United States, Japan’s longtime defender, could be pulled into the conflict.

Japanese fears intensified two years ago during the last major flare-up over the Senkakus, when China retaliated for Japan’s arrest of a fishing captain by starving Japan of the rare earths needed for its already struggling electronics industry. That anxiety became more pronounced in recent months as China expanded its claims in the nearby South China Sea, challenging Vietnam, the Philippines and others over more than 40 islands in a vast area, and backing its statements with aggressive moves that included sending larger patrol boats to disputed waters.

There is still little appetite in pacifist Japan for a full-blown confrontation with China. But analysts say consensus is growing on the need to stand up to China as power in the region appears to slip further from economically fading Japan and the United States.

“We are all gearing up for an international tug of war in this region,” said Narushige Michishita, an expert on security issues at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Whenever the distribution of power changes in a dramatic way, people start to redraw lines.”

That is precisely what is happening in the South China Sea, which has received more international attention than Japan’s territorial battles. But experts say the increasingly shrill war of words between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, including China and South Korea, is potentially more explosive. Unlike in the South China Sea, where the frictions center on competition for natural resources, the East Asian island disputes are more about history, rooted in lingering — and easily ignited — anger over Japan’s brutal dominance of its neighbors decades ago.

Those raw emotions were loosed over the weekend, as hundreds and possibly thousands of Chinese — in protests that were at least tolerated by the government — poured into the streets in several cities to denounce Japan’s claims over the islands.

“The stakes are much higher in East Asia because you have bigger countries in close proximity, and the conflicts are more direct and emotional,” said Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

The ramifications for the United States are also potentially more troubling, analysts said. The United States has been urging Japan and South Korea to pick up more of the burden of defending against China and North Korea, but the countries’ latest standoff over islets that sit between them, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korean, contributed to South Korea’s decision to back out of an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan.

An even bigger, though remote, risk for the United States, some analysts said, is that it could be dragged into an armed conflict between China and Japan, which it is obligated by treaty to defend.

“There is a real possibility that if diplomacy fails, there will be a war,” said Kazuhiko Togo, a former career Japanese diplomat who has written on the island issues.

The current row between Japan and China was started by Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara, a longtime and outspoken advocate of conservative issues. Last spring, he said he wanted Tokyo to buy the islands from their current owner, a Japanese citizen, to better defend them from China. Under pressure not to look weak in advance of elections, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda quickly said the central government would buy the islands instead.

That set off a tit-for-tat between activists from both countries. First, seven Hong Kong activists landed last week on Uotori, the largest of the disputed islands, and were among 14 Chinese arrested by Japan and quickly deported. Japanese nationalists retaliated with their landing on the same island on Sunday. (In a sign of how small the circle of Japanese activists is, one of the eight national lawmakers who joined the flotilla, Eriko Yamatani of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, was also part of a recent episode that helped set off the latest battle between South Korea and Japan over their disputed islands.)

That flotilla left from here, on Ishigaki island, on the southern edge of the Okinawa chain that is about 80 miles from the Senkakus.

Yoshiyuki Toita, a 42-year-old member of Ishigaki’s city assembly, was one of the few local residents who joined the expedition. “Japan has come to the point that it must change,” Mr. Toita said. “The era of just depending on the United States is over.”

Even so, Mr. Toita agreed with mainstream opinion that Japan should cleave more closely to the United States. Still, the government has taken at least some actions to show its own willingness to push back at China, most notably redrawing its national defense strategy, which had once focused on the Soviet Union in the north, but now will concentrate on protecting against China in the south. And an opinion poll last October conducted by the prime minister’s office showed a growing wariness, with more than 70 percent of Japanese saying they do not have “friendly feelings” toward China.

Such sentiments have even made inroads here in Ishigaki, a part of Okinawa, where a deep pacifism was born of the anger at the Japanese Imperial Army’s forcing of civilians to commit suicide during World War II, as well as the heavy American troop presence after the war.

As Chinese warships and patrol boats have become a more frequent sight in waters near here, some islanders have begun to speak out more in support of the American and Japanese militaries, even as sentiment against United States bases remains strong.

Since the events of two years ago when China cut off supplies of rare earths, Ishigaki’s mayor, Yoshitaka Nakayama, began flying the rising sun flag in front of city hall for the first time since World War II.

At the same time, said Mr. Nakayama, 45, he values his island’s growing trade and tourism links to the Chinese-speaking world, especially Taiwan, which also stakes a claim to the Senkakus.

Mr. Tamashiro, the fishing boat captain, expressed similar conflicted feelings, even as he has begun taking more activists to see the islands. “Basically, fishermen don’t want the politics to disrupt their livelihoods,” Mr. Tamashiro said. But at $4,500 per boat charter, he said, going to the Senkakus “is not bad money.”

Martin Fackler

China And Japan Are Playing Dangerous Geopolitical Games

Old quarrels take new forms when the world’s power balance shifts. The Japanese and Chinese nationalists squaring up over disputed islands in the East China Sea are in the grip of geopolitical rivalries, jockeying for position on the new map that China’s rise has created. Their deeper animosity goes back into the misuse of their troubled, shared history.

When China’s climb out of the economic trough began in the 1990s, the US was the world’s biggest power, Japan the second biggest economy, and the Soviet empire recently deceased. Today, China is the world’s second largest economy, Japan has stagnated for two decades, and US power looks less impressive than it did. As China flexes its muscles, the US shift in focus to the Pacific has come not a minute too soon for some of Beijing’s nervous neighbours.

Asia’s maritime borders, and ownership of the oil and gas beneath the East and South China seas, are disputed between Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, China and Japan – but as China grows, so does its unilateral assertion of claims. Two years ago it announced the South China Sea was a “core interest”, in an unsuccessful attempt to stick a “keep out” sign on the dispute for the US to read. In July, Beijing elevated an island-based military garrison to city status, unilaterally giving it administrative responsibility over the entire South China Sea.

In the East China Sea, things have been equally tense. In April Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s governor, provocatively announced a public fund to buy several of the islands from private Japanese citizens. His action embarrassed the government and inflamed Japanese sentiments, provoking a reaction from Chinese nationalists: on 15 August, the anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender, a group of Chinese citizens landed and raised Chinese flags on the islands. They were swiftly deported to Hong Kong, precipitating the worst anti-Japanese demonstrations since 2004.

The animosity is much older. For centuries China saw Japan as a vassal state and loftily accepted tribute from a people they regarded as inferior. In the 19th century, when Japan cast off its feudal system and modernised, the shock to China was the greater because of its historic contempt. When, in 1894, Japan defeated China militarily, the humiliation was felt across the nation. China set out to learn from Japan’s transformation but was powerless to prevent Japan’s imperial expansion and brutal occupation. Even after Japan’s defeat in 1945, Japan’s economic success and close relationship with the US perpetuated Chinese resentment.

That Japan is the focus of popular rage in China today is less surprising, given this history, than the fact that until the late 1970s visiting Japanese were greeted in China with professions of friendship. It was only after the Chinese regime sent tanks to crush the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989 that nationalist animosity became official policy.

In the version of history elaborated after 1989, malign foreigners are China’s enemy and the cause of the century of “national humiliation” from the 1840s to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. “National humiliation” is now commemorated in scores of freshly built museums and taught to successive generations of school children.

Among China’s enemies, Japan occupies a special place as a brutal territorial aggressor. China complains constantly, and unfairly, that Japan has failed to apologise for its war crimes; the visits of successive Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine, with its unrepentant imperialist message, infuriates China every year.

Both sides distort history. Japan’s notorious school textbooks are vague on war crimes; Chinese accounts of Japanese atrocities in films and school history books spare no gruesome detail. Japan as the source of inspiration and finance for a generation of Chinese political reformers, including Sun Yatsen, China’s democratic revolutionary leader, is all but forgotten. Both the Chinese nationalists (the Kuomintang) and the Communist party claim to have defeated Japan in the war of resistance; the larger theatre of the second world war, the role of the US and the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki take a back seat.

Both governments have stoked nationalism for domestic purposes. Now they risk being held hostage to the indignation of the street. As Asia’s geostrategic map shifts, such incidents, demonstrations and provocations will recur, stimulated by false histories and present ambitions. These are dangerous games, and both governments should ensure that more sober stories prevail. These maritime disputes are a test of Asia’s capacity to co-operate for mutual benefit. Failure means everybody loses.

Business Insider

Posted in: Economy, Politics