Nationalism runs high in Asian disputes

Posted on August 28, 2012


Tensions in Asia’s territorial disputes continue to escalate. A dangerous mix of nationalist sentiments and domestic politics in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, have exacerbated long simmering disputes over several island clusters throughout the region.

One such dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands had the US Secretary of Defense discussing unmanned aerial vehicle patrols with his Japanese counterpart. A flotilla of 20 Japanese activist boats dispatched there caused further headaches for politicians in Beijing and Tokyo.

Protests against “Japanese aggression” were held in Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha and Hong Kong following postings on the social network site Weibo, which were quickly censored and removed.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan have locked horns over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, two countries which, until recently, worked together against China’s rise with joint naval exercises and resource stockpiling. The dispute with Japan erupted when President Lee Myung-bak visited the islands in early August sparking a diplomatic row, which gained further airplay during the Olympic Games due to the exploits of a Korean football player. The tensions appear to have already reignited old grievances from Japan’s long occupation of the Peninsula and soured what was proving a stronger alliance in intelligence sharing and overall cooperation.

Russia has also weighed in on territorial claims. In July, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri, one of four islands off Hokkaido that Japan claims as its own. The visit was one of opportunism while most eyes were trained on the South China Sea, and this opens yet another frontier for Japanese diplomacy to navigate.

Indeed, Russia holds a further hand in the disputes, supplying Vietnam’s six Kilo-class diesel submarines – which are yet to be delivered. The procurement will help build Vietnam’s capability for limited sea denial around specific waters. Meanwhile, in April this year Russia staged joint naval exercises with China in the Yellow Sea.

Stirring the South China Sea
At the heart of the Spratly and Paracel islands dispute is control of the all important sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that run through the South China Sea and act as the maritime superhighway for China and its neighbors, while also being of tremendous importance to global trade. Of similar importance is ownership over valuable fisheries, minerals and hydrocarbons in the South China Sea, the East Sea, and the Sea of Okhotsk.

The stakes have recently been raised. Formally established on July 24, Sansha city will hold a military garrison and act as China’s administrative capital for all that lies south of Hainan. The creation of the administrative capital, on an island 220 miles south from Hainan province in the South China Sea, drew criticism from the US and Asian states.

Two weeks after the establishment, the Congressional Research Service released a report for discussion in Congress on China’s military modernization and implications for the US Navy. In the corridors of Capital Hill whispers of a last resort US military strategy targeting China are reported to have echoed louder than before. The bellicose rhetoric could be found on both sides of the Pacific.

For Vietnam, the creation of the garrison evokes memories of the 1974 Battle for the Paracel Islands. In the battle, China led a successful sea assault supported by an air attack launched from Hainan and forced a Vietnamese retreat, leaving over 70 dead. The capability of the PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force has increased significantly since then.

All eyes are now on the US. It has pledged its commitment to greater involvement in the Asia-Pacific. Joint naval exercises have been undertaken with several Asian states. Yet it remains unclear whether it will honor long-standing agreements such as the Mutual Defense Treaties with the Philippines (1951), Australia and New Zealand (1951), Japan (1951), and South Korea (1953).

This would either pit the US against China, or severely deflate the current chest puffing of smaller Asian states as they realize that they are on their own. China knows it has some leeway in an election year in the US; the Obama administration will not cast the first stone.

While many analysts have long argued that any major open conflict in the South China Sea is unlikely due to the negative economic impact such conflict in the SLOC could have, the opening of two shipping lanes in the Arctic – the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage – could soon provide China with an alternative route to Europe and the Pacific ports. Trade between Asia could continue, albeit more limited, even if “sea denial” of the South China Sea occurred. It is therefore no surprise that China has been vocal in the Arctic Council, vying for a louder voice, and has in the past month opened an Institute for Arctic Studies in cooperation with Iceland.

Internal troubles and rising nationalism
“Conflicting mandates” and “a lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies” were said to plague the Chinese government according to an International Crisis Group report published in April.

Military and civil society are jockeying for influence. The military have traditionally held great sway in power transitions in the People’s Republic of China. Yet in recent decades, following the passing of China’s founding generation of revolutionary leaders, the bifurcation of civil and military elites into their respective institutions has reduced the military’s sway in the Politburo and thus in the power transition.

Meanwhile, the power and influence of the administrators of large provinces, which collect big taxes and control populations similar to that of European countries, is always looming in the wings. In what is a year of transition for the Chinese government, the implications of a civil-military power struggle could have dire consequences on the South China Sea dispute. Competing interests may lead to a break down in centralized decision-making and the ability to diffuse any conflict.

The media across the region are continuing to nationalize the South China Sea issue through bellicose rhetoric, perhaps no more so than in China. In a year that marks the 600th anniversary of Chinese seafarer Zheng He’s expeditions across Asia, it should come as no surprise that nationalist sentiments are high.

Cultural mobilization has been a key element of binding the populous country together; the most striking example of which was Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Further, it should come as a no surprise that increased national unity has been a key issue in a year where a transition of power is to happen at the highest echelons of government, and in a year where global economic turbulence, particularly in Europe, continues to threaten trade balances and therefore employment of hundreds of millions of Chinese workers. National unity is necessary to prevent internal unrest.

The problem of course with any such cultural drum-up is that it provokes the masses. That in turn has implications that complicate centralized control. Fishing vessels stretch further into the resource-rich waters backed by the cultural drumming. And a navy, which still lacks a blue-water capacity and which requires continued modernization, sees an opportunity to jump on the back of the cultural dragon to justify or increase its slice of the budget pie. Meanwhile, at home, protests and mass rallies demand action from the government.

Calming the seas
Further confidence-building measures and dialogues are needed between the claimant states. The US should sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which would provide for a framework to resolve territorial disputes at an international level. Until it does it has no authority to censure signatories, such as China for upholding their claims. Yet any move toward signing of the UNCLOS has been blocked in the US Senate.

Despite its superior naval capabilities, the US is hampered by the lack of credibility from having not ratified that document – although, that the UN could act as a forum for negotiation is hopeful at best, and reckless at worst. Nationalist sentiments run high, and there is a lot to lose through UN moderation, namely for China who can negotiate much more favorable resolutions on a bilateral basis. Yet there remains a view, cocksure and boisterous, that conflict is impossible due to the economic-integration between the China and the US.

How these crises are managed, in particular the escalating nationalism in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, will give great indication of whether conflict can be averted in the all-important South China Sea dispute. Indeed the recent territorial disputes in northeast Asia appear as litmus tests for the response further south. Yet the immediate danger is in the unpredictability of growing nationalism coupled with the actions of an overzealous fishing trawler or a flotilla of activists.

Elliot Brennan

American scholarship on South China Sea misguided

Tensions have risen recently in the South China Sea amid disputes among nations in the area.

The disputes in the South China Sea are mainly about the sovereignty of some islets and the administration over some waters.

The US has taken an active part in the South China Sea issue in the past two years, but I think its actions are less than helpful in solving the problems.

One problem is that the current think tanks associated with the White House are short of experts who both know international law of the sea very well and have constant interest in the South China Sea.

This is partly because the area is relatively remote to the US, in sense of its geographical distance or its strategic interest, and partly because many of the US scholars who study the South China Sea issue are Republicans, and therefore are not employed to work in think tanks for the current Democratic administration.

International legal scholar Jonathan Charney used to dominate discussions on the South China Sea in the US.

He published an article in the prestigious American Journal of International Law in 1995, a core journal on international law, and misleadingly emphasized that China has no right to claim sovereignty over “all the islands” in the South China Sea.

That article has had a profound influence in the US.

However, as a matter of fact, China has never claimed over “all the islands” in the South China Sea.

The consistent stand of China is to claim sovereignty over the islands and their nearby waters within its historic waters boundary (the “U-shaped line”) in the South China Sea which has been in the charge of China for centuries. This area only makes up half of the South China Sea.

Another contemporary leading scholar who publishes a lot on the South China Sea issue is a scientist, not an international lawyer.

He asserts that countries in this area could refer to the Antarctic Treaty to solve the issue. The South China Sea could then be open to all the countries in the area to enjoy the rights and responsibilities of exploitation and management.

But there are abundant historic proofs to prove that China has discovered first and controlled first these small, usually uninhabited islets before any other countries.

According to international law, that means China has already had undisputed sovereignty over this area. Then, unless for substantial reasons, why should China share its territory with other countries?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has been regarded as the bible for solving the world’s maritime issues peacefully. During her earlier visit to Vietnam, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on China to follow the UNCLOS.

However, more than 160 countries have joined in that Convention, but it has never been ratified by the US.

China ratified the UNCLOS in 1996, and has remained committed to solving the South China Sea issue through bilateral negotiations with reference to the UNCLOS and other pertaining international laws.

China’s claims over those islands within its “U-shaped” historic water limits in the South China Sea also remain consistent with the UNCLOS.

I have found in recent forums on the South China Sea issue that scholars and politicians from the US are increasingly eager to listen to Chinese experts in international law and the South China Sea.

I hope that, with enough knowledge, the Americans will realize there is nothing wrong with China claiming its sovereignty within its U-shaped line in the South China Sea.

After that, they will really take a more constructive role to help peacefully solve the regional issues according to the UNCLOS and other pertaining international laws.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Shen Shushu based on an interview with Fu Kuen-chen, editor-in-chief of China Oceans Law Review and KoGuan Chair Professor of Law at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Militarization of China’s Civilian Leaders?

The Diplomat last month published a penetrating article by Peter Mattis that asked how much influence the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was having on foreign and national security policymaking, and whether that influence was growing as China’s armed forces expand. That article, which didn’t receive the attention it deserved, however, only asked — and perhaps answered — half the question.

What Mattis, and several others, haven’t asked is whether the civilian members within the Politburo are becoming more enamored with the PLA as an instrument to achieve their political objectives. In other words, the question that needs to be asked is whether recent Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Sea is the result of greater “push” by an increasingly vocal PLA, or more “pull” by the civilian leadership.

The answer to that question is more important than it might appear, as it could reveal the pressure points that are key to understanding, and in turn dealing with, the future behavior of the Chinese military. It could also shed light on the deployment of a military garrison on Sansha Island in the South China Sea, and whether the move is a purely political expression or part of the militarization of China’s foreign policy.

As Mattis rightly notes, the PLA only “controls” a limited number of spots on the CCP Central Committee, which, while not making it a kingmaker, could give it enough clout to “extract concessions, collect promises, and encourage the politically ambitious to support PLA preferences.” While the PLA element within the CCP has traditionally been described as an advisory body that simultaneously must “educate” and “convince” the CCP — thus limiting its influence to its ability to make its case, and consequently keeping militarism in check — what if the remaining members of the Central Committee who are not part of the PLA are themselves becoming more amenable to the concept of the military as an acceptable element of policymaking?

That possibility is not as outlandish as it seems. Western powers, the U.S. included, have a long tradition of civilian leadership that did not hesitate to turn to the military to fix foreign policy problems. In many instances, it was civilian members of the National Security Council and the State Department, not the top brass, that sought to use force, as epitomized by Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in her famous rebuke to then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

While Clinton’s relationship with the U.S. military was initially uncomfortable, his administration eventually changed its attitude vis-à-vis the use of force abroad, leading to interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo at a time when the Pentagon, chief among them Powell, was reluctant to involve itself in operations that did not meet Powell’s operational preferences. After Clinton, George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein was much more the result of civilian members of his Cabinet, people like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, than U.S. generals, who again signaled a certain reluctance to use force. After Bush left office and was replaced by Obama, who ran for office as a peacemaker intent on repairing Washington’s image abroad following eight years of military adventurism, the U.S. again embarked on military adventures — from Afghanistan to Libya — that, particularly in the case of Libya, were largely driven by the civilian leadership. From Clinton to Obama, the militarization of U.S. foreign policy was not the result of growing influence of the U.S. military on the White House, but rather greater willingness on the part of the civilian Cabinet to use the immense powers and reach of the armed forces to accomplish its political aims.

There is no reason why things should be any different with China, especially as its civilian leadership, for the first time since 1949, is endowed with a military that is modern and flexible enough to complement foreign policy imperatives. Factor in the element of nationalism, which is undeniably on the rise within China, and it becomes clear that the recent saber rattling by Yang Yi, PLA Major-General Luo Yuan, and others could be the result not of the PLA pressuring the CCP, but rather of militarists recognizing that the civilian leadership has created an environment that is more permissible for such expressions.

Under a “push” scenario, trends toward militarism would conceivably progress slowly and as per calibration by the civilian leadership. Conversely, a “pull” by civilians would likely accelerate the process,as both factions would work toward the same objective.

To come back to an earlier point, the differences are crucial, as they could very well determine the extent of the PLA’s role in formulating Chinese foreign policy. If, as Mattis and others argue, the question is how much influence the PLA has on the Politburo, then we can safely expect that militarism will remain a fringe factor in an otherwise carefully balanced foreign policy. However, if the key point isn’t PLA influence, but rather growing willingness among the civilian leadership to rely on the PLA to achieved its political objectives, then the checks on militarism disappear, and suddenly augmentations on Sansha, to use one example, become much more alarming than would otherwise be the case.

The same holds true for China’s recent assertiveness in its disputes with Japan over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea and other claimants in the South China Sea. If Beijing’s recent behavior is the result of pressure from the PLA, at some point the civilian leadership, aware of the political costs, will stand back and allow the situation to calm down. If, however, China’s recent behavior is the result of an increasingly militaristic civilian leadership, then the chances that it will back off become smaller, unless the PLA, much as Powell did in the 1990s, decides that adventurism isn’t worth the risk and attempts to stymie the civilians.

Should that be the case, then Mattis’ question as to whether “China’s civilian leaders have the intellectual experience or the ability to draw on military expertise independent of the PLA to manage the PLA’s increasing competence and influence,” becomes doubly important, especially as the CCP is about to undergo a power transition. Unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping, Hu’s likely successor, actually has a close relationship with the PLA and worked in its upper echelons for three years, which could make him more comfortable with the military, if not more inclined to call upon it to fix political problems.

Whether the influence of the PLA on the Chinese civilian leadership is growing remains to be seen and must be monitored closely. Just as importantly, albeit often ignored, is whether the civilians in the Politburo themselves are becoming more inclined to use the increasingly powerful arsenal at their disposal to conduct foreign policy. Instead of looking at the Politburo in terms of the balance of power between brass and civilians, we should perhaps try to determine whether the civilians are not themselves calling on the military to do more.

J. Michael Cole is a regular contributor to the Diplomat’s Flashpoints Blog.

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