Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Posted on September 3, 2012


It still amazes me how much media interest there currently is in the various maritime disputes of Asia. Five years ago, to find information on these then-obscure disagreements over tiny pieces of land required diligence and patience. Now, and in particular since the much-vaunted U.S. pivot to Asia, every week seems to bring new stories about these islands.

It is therefore worth our taking a step back and asking how we got here. What have been the drivers for the maritime disputes over the past five years, do they share any similarities, and why, when these disputes have existed for decades, have they become so tense now?

First, a reminder of the context. The islands in dispute are the Kurils (claimed by Japan and Russia); the Dokdo/Takeshima islands (South Korea and Japan); the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyu islands (China, Taiwan and Japan); and the four major island groups of the South China Sea (in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam). Other island disputes exist in East Asia (such as the Northern Limit Line between the Korea), but these four comprise the most contested and contentious.

These disputes are usually viewed in isolation, but there are similarities that they all share. Although claims of occupation and administration stretch back centuries, all of the disputes exist, to some extent, as legacies of imperial Japan’s expansion through East Asia in the first half of the 20th century, and its immediate withdrawal following its defeat in World War II. Before this period, most of the states in East Asia were too militarily weak to effectively enforce their claims; some were entirely occupied by imperial powers, and the modern international legal concepts of territorial sovereignty were arguably still alien to the region.

Hence, all of these disputes have seen greater competition as regional states have improved their military and paramilitary capabilities. This not only allows them to occupy and administer islands at the edge (or even beyond) their territory, but it also makes nations more concerned about these peripheral concerns as they become more confident in their internal monopoly of violence. The stabilization of areas of East Asia following decades of war also allows the focus to shift from the land to the sea.

In more recent years, the rise of China has inspired the greatest concern among its neighbors over these territorial disputes. Those countries surrounding China would point to its perceived “assertiveness.” The list of complaints is lengthy: in 1974 China’s People’s Liberation Army ousted Vietnam from the Paracel Islands; in 1988 the PLA fought Vietnamese troops over Johnson South Reef; in 1995 China occupied Mischief Reef; in 2009 a Chinese flotilla challenged the USNS Impeccable in its exclusive economic zone; in 2010 Japan claimed Beijing had used its trade as a coercive diplomatic tool by severely limiting rare earth metals exports; in 2011, Vietnam claimed Chinese civilian and paramilitary vessels had deliberately cut survey cables behind its exploration vessels; in 2012, the Philippines once again claimed Beijing had used coercive economic diplomacy by limiting banana imports amid the Scarborough Shoal fracas.

Beijing would of course dispute this interpretation, despite the seeming weight of evidence ranged against it. Vietnam, for instance, has been far more active in occupying features in the Spratly group, and Vietnam and the Philippines have both been more vigorous in pursuing hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea. China is, in Beijing’s narrative, merely reacting to the aggression of others. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that China’s neighbors perceive assertiveness on its part, and this, in tandem with the impressive improvements in China’s military capabilities, is driving the procurement of military capabilities in the region.

A further factor that has inspired fiercer competition has been the ability to exploit the likely hydrocarbon resources underneath the waters. It is of more than passing interest that the initial expansions of occupations in the South China Sea, in the early 1970s, occurred soon after a 1969 U.N. survey declared the likelihood of subsoil resources near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the initial Sino-Vietnamese clash came just months after the oil price spike of 1973.

In more recent years, China’s exploitation of gas in the Xihu trough in the East China Sea and licensing of blocks to foreign companies by Vietnam and the Philippines since the mid-2000s have all created friction between the disputants. Although no mineral resources have been tapped around Dokdo/Takeshima or the Kuril/Chishima islands, it is an often disregarded fact that rights to economic exploitation at sea stem from the land. Hence, sovereignty over any of the disputed island groups potentially grants hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea to be exploited.

Given that all of the major economies of Northeast Asia rely on imported oil and gas for their energy needs, this issue has only increased in importance in line with the oil price. But this is not to downplay the significance of other resources: some estimates claim that up to 700 million people in the South China Sea region alone rely on fishing for their livelihoods. It is no coincidence that it was the attempted arrest of Chinese fishermen by the U.S.-donated Philippine flagship that began the stand-off at Scarborough Shoal.

There are, of course, factors that are germane to any specific area that help explain why friction now dominates the tenor of the dispute. In the South China Sea, for instance, a May 2009 deadline for disputant states to submit their extended continental shelf claims led to a diplomatic flurry that heightened concern over the region, particular as China for the first time attached the infamous nine-dashed line to an official communication. Still, it is of interest intellectually and of relevance politically to point out that each of these disputes has seen an increase in antagonism at the same time.

There is, though, one other similarity across these disputes that is perhaps more positive. Despite sometimes ostentatious military deployments, whether it’s the Russians currently fortifying their position in the Kuril Islands or China undertaking live-fire exercises in the South China Sea, thus far almost all altercations in these various disputed Asian waters have involved paramilitary and not military vessels. In fact, the various states, while building up their military forces as a deterrent measure (or possibly a coercive one in the future) have been careful to avoid confrontation between rival military forces. The use of maritime paramilitaries carries various benefits, such as a latent demonstration of sovereignty, but perhaps key among them is that it demilitarizes, and therefore deescalates, the encounters that occur on these seas. This suggests that while these disputes may remain intractable, no claimant is currently seeking a conflict-based solution.

 Christian Le Mière 

The World’s Gaze Turns to the South Pacific

With the world’s great powers calling, factionalism is increasingly present among island nations of the Pacific. It could be trouble.

RAROTONGA – Hillary Clinton’s first diplomatic foray into the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) took Washington’s much-vaunted“rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific an enormous step forward while upping the ante in a region that is often passed-over as a political backwater.

The message was simple. The U.S. Secretary of State wants Pacific leaders to believe that Washington thinks the 16 isolated states of the PIF matter, and that they will find a much more amiable friend in the U.S. than in China or Russia.

She told the annual PIF dialogue partners meeting that the Pacific was big enough for everyone, including the European Union, Canada, the U.K., and China, while adding the U.S. was looking to an “American model of partnership”.

“That’s why I have said that the 21st Century will be America’s Pacific Century, with an emphasis on the Pacific. That Pacific half of Asia-Pacific doesn’t always get as much attention as it should, but the United States knows this region is strategically and economically vital and becoming more so,” she said.

Her visit was almost certainly the single most important diplomatic event in the Cook Islands since Britain’s Queen Elizabeth dropped-in for a one day stop-over in 1974. It also came amid a high stakes game of checkbook diplomacy which is being played out among the tiny Pacific states.

This much was obvious over here during the last week.

Backroom bargaining and deals signed or others negotiated on foreign policy formed an undercurrent over formal negotiations between member states and another 41 countries – including Israel, Cuba and even Kosovo – which sent delegations.

The PIF, established in 1971, is supposed to promote cohesion and cooperation between its isolated members, whose concerns primarily relate to climate change, trade, fishing, and transportation. To be fair this year’s summit did provide a focus on those issues.

A new marine park, the largest in the world, was declared. Trade and fishing agreements were thrashed out and gender initiatives were established with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard launching a US$330 million initiative to promote gender equality.

Women in the South Pacific have the world’s lowest participation rates in Parliament with women on average making up five percent of the entire legislature. As of 2010, the sub-region also had the distinction of containing four of the six countries worldwide that do not have any female lawmakers. Along with addressing political representation issues, Gillard said measures would be introduced to prevent violence against women, expand health centers and build shelters, particularly in rural areas.

Importantly, fiscal mechanisms were also put in place to help island states cope financially with the impact of climate change.

Tuvalu, at its highest point, is just 4.6 meters above sea level and this is typical of many islands within the PIF sphere of influence.

But it was the political front that stole the lion’s share of the spotlight.

New Zealand has just completed its year as chair of the PIF. In handing over the Chair to the Cook Islands, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was adamant that the forum had flourished over the past year by taking a united stand on the international stage.

“The united Pacific front we have been able to present …amplifies our voice in putting specific issues squarely on the international agenda,” he said as part of an upbeat assessment of his country’s year at the helm despite the realities on the ground that paint a much different political and diplomatic picture.

For the wider world the PIF can command a strategically important bloc of votes at the United Nations, which makes it an alluring target for countries seeking support for their particular agendas. This includes the countries vying for one of the five non-permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council at a vote that will be held in about six weeks.

Winning friends, however, is an expensive business and no nation has been more eager to win friends in the Pacific over recent years than Russia, which was notably absent from the summit and politely ignored in speeches by the likes of Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Gillard.

Insiders told The Diplomat that Moscow had sent “a demand” for an invitation to this year’s meeting but decided to stay away after realizing it would be lumped under the category of “attending” countries alongside Taiwan as opposed to being a full “dialogue partner,” a status enjoyed by the likes of the U.S., China, and even Britain.

“Russia is getting engaged in the Pacific because like the two other major powers U.S. and China, they are all ‘pivoting” into the Pacific and want to shadow each others’ moves,” Ben Sims, Research Associate at the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, told The Diplomat.

“Note that Russia is hosting the APEC summit in coming weeks in Vladivostok, on its Pacific coast,” he said of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) group.

Importantly, he also said Russia was courting islands to help recognize breakaway Caucus states — such as Abkhazia, which is recognized by Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Nauru — garner future U.N. votes, and probably look for resources and potential navy bases.

“Fiji and Vanuatu are two particular countries it is courting.”

For tiny Nauru, establishing diplomatic relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia earned them a US$50 million assistance package from Moscow in 2009. The money has also flowed to Tuvalu since the world’s third least populated nation also recognized Russia’s troubled neighbors last year.

The PIF is also split over the recognition of Taiwan, however, as China has attained a degree of respectability within the forum through targeted aid, including a joint venture with New Zealand to provide the Cook Islands and its 11,000 people with clean water.

“This push also makes the forum less about its stated theme — Large Ocean Island States the Pacific Challenge — and more about nations shoring up recognition, in the case of China/Taiwan and Russia,” Sims said.

Russian-sponsored “assistance packages” not only legitimizes Fiji’s dictatorship and destabilizes Vanuatu’s government, but also comes at the expense of compromised foreign policies among the PIF.

That’s not to say that legitimate development assistance is not welcomed. Most PIF countries need sustainable aid from international partners like the U.S. $32 million offered by Clinton, which was primarily linked to climate change.

But “the Dutch auction”, as one long time observer put it, also comes amid other divisions within the Pacific ranks which is factionalizing and priming members for outside interference.

This became evident after a meeting of the Smaller Island States (SIS) which encompasses the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said the SIS would use its collective vote to support issues of mutual interest, particularly climate change, effectively acting as a sub-group within the forum.

A further layer has been added to PIF factionalism by Fiji, which was suspended by the PIF in 2009 at the behest of Australia and New Zealand in response to the 2006 coup.

Readmission is dependent upon holding democratic elections by 2014. However, Fiji has thrived despite its pariah status and built bilateral relations with countries outside its traditional sphere of influence through the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

The MSG is being viewed as a pre-cursor to the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) which one senior diplomat here said would compete directly with the PIF in direct opposition to regional and PIF political heavyweights Australia and New Zealand.

In addition, independence movements in French Polynesia and to a lesser extent New Caledonia, are in the ascendancy causing consternation among their colonial masters in Paris and further concern over shifting Pacific alliances in Canberra and Wellington.

This was highlighted in the official end of summit communiqué with leaders again supporting the French territory’s right to self-determination but this time, following last year’s election of Oscar Temaru as President, diplomats said this would be a major regional issue going forward.

“I think that the international push into the Pacific is a sign of an increasingly multi-polar world, where new powers are challenging the traditional geopolitical structures of the region,” Sims said.

As such he said the Pacific needs to assert itself but not passively bend to “all the demands of new actors pushing for their own self-interest.”

Over the long-term it is only the Pacific states themselves which will suffer from this kind of factionalismand independent deals that are dictated by the highest bidders. What is needed is frank and open dialogue on a united foreign policy that could deliver the PIF real clout on an international stage that can always do with a bit more honesty.

Luke Hunt