Asian Nationalism at Sea

Posted on September 5, 2012


CAMBRIDGE – Will war break out in the seas of East Asia? After Chinese and Japanese nationalists staged competing occupations of the barren landmasses that China refers to as the Diaoyu Islands and Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, angry demonstrators in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu chanted, “We must kill all Japanese.”

Likewise, a standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea led to protests in Manila. And a long planned step forward in cooperation between South Korea and Japan was torpedoed when the South Korean president visited the barren island that Korea calls Dokdo, Japan calls Takeshima, and the United States calls the Liancourt Rocks.

One should not be too alarmist. The US has declared that the Senkaku Islands (administered by the Okinawa Prefecture when it was returned to Japan in 1972) are covered by the US-Japan security treaty. Meanwhile, the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal has calmed down, and, while Japan recalled its ambassador from South Korea over the Dokdo incident, it is unlikely the two countries would come to blows.

But it is worth recalling that China used lethal force to expel Vietnamese from the Paracel Islands in 1974 and 1988. And China prevailed upon the Cambodian host of this year’s ASEAN summit to block a final communiqué that would have called for a code of conduct in the South China Sea – the first time in the ten-member association’s four-decade history that it failed to issue a communiqué.

The revival of extreme nationalism in East Asia is both worrisome and understandable. In Europe, while Greeks may grumble about the terms of German backing for emergency financing, the period since World War II has seen enormous progress in knitting countries together. Nothing similar has happened in Asia, and issues dating back to the 1930’s and 1940’s remain raw, a problem exacerbated by biased textbooks and government policies.

The Chinese Communist Party is not very communist any more. Instead, it bases its legitimacy on rapid economic growth and ethnic Han nationalism. Memories of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and Japanese aggression in the 1930’s are politically useful and fit within a larger theme of Chinese victimization by imperialist forces.

Some American defense analysts view China’s maritime strategy as being clearly aggressive. They point to increasing defense expenditures and the development of missile and submarine technology designed to cordon off the seas extending from China’s coast to “the first island chain” of Taiwan and Japan.

Others, however, see a Chinese strategy that is confused, contradictory, and paralyzed by competing bureaucratic interests. They point to the negative results of China’s more assertive policies since the economic crisis of 2008. Indeed, China’s policies have damaged its relations with nearly all of its neighbors.

Consider the Senkaku incident in 2010, when, after Japan arrested the crew of a Chinese trawler that had rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel, China escalated its economic reprisals. The result, as one Japanese analyst put it, was that “China scored an own goal,” immediately reversing what had been a favorable trend in bilateral relations under the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. More generally, while China spends billions of renminbi in efforts to increase its soft power in Asia, its behavior in the South China Sea contradicts its own message.

I have asked Chinese friends and officials why China follows such a counterproductive strategy. The first and formal answer is that China inherited historical territorial claims, including a map from the Nationalist period that sketches a “nine-dotted line” encompassing virtually the entire South China Sea. Today, with technology making underwater as well as fisheries resources more exploitable in the area, it is impossible to abandon this patrimony. In 2009-2010, some mid-ranking officials and commentators even referred to the South China Sea as a sovereign “core interest” like Taiwan or Tibet.

But China’s leaders have never been clear about the exact location of the “nine-dotted line,” or about whether their claims refer only to certain land features, or also to more extensive continental shelves and seas. When asked why they do not clarify their claims, my Chinese interlocutors sometimes say that to do so would require difficult political and bureaucratic compromises that would provoke domestic nationalists.

Moreover, sometimes they say that they do not want to give away a bargaining chip prematurely. In 1995, and again in 2010, the US declared that the waters of the South China Sea should be governed by the 1982 United Nations Law of the Seas Treaty (which, ironically, the US has not yet ratified), but that the US takes no position on the territorial claims. Instead, the US urged that competing claims be resolved through negotiation.

In 2002, China and ASEAN agreed on a legally non-binding code of conduct for managing such disputes, but, as a large power, China believes that it will gain more in bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations with small countries. That belief was behind China’s pressure on Cambodia to block ASEAN’s final communiqué this summer.

But this is a mistaken strategy. As a large power, China will have great weight in any circumstance, and it can reduce its self-inflicted damage by agreeing to a code of conduct.

As for the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the best proposal comes from The Economist. China should refrain from sending official vessels into Japanese waters, and use a hotline with Japan to manage crises generated by nationalist “cowboys.” At the same time, the two countries should revive a 2008 framework for joint development of disputed gas fields in the East China Sea, and Japan’s central government should purchase the barren islands from their private owner and declare them an international maritime protected area.

It is time for all countries in East Asia to remember Winston Churchill’s famous advice: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

Joseph S. Nye

Islands of Nationalism

BEIJING – If the recent tension between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea is any indication, relations between the world’s second and third largest economies will not be smooth for some time to come, despite ever-increasing bilateral trade and investment. That is because both countries’ latest rush to affirm their sovereignty over the islands – called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese – reflects a sense of insecurity and a perception that the other side is taking an aggressive stand, which means that the issue is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

On the Japanese side, there is growing anxiety over China’s increasing economic and military prowess, such that some nationalists would like to “settle” the matter in Japan’s favor as soon as possible. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s recent call for Japan’s government to “purchase” the islands from “private” Japanese owners can be explained in this context.

On the Chinese side, the maritime quarrels with Japan – and with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the South China Sea – have reignited a national debate about whether China’s foreign policy is too weak in terms of asserting the country’s interests. America’s “pivot” to Asia, viewed by many Chinese as an effort by the United States to reassert itself in Asia by supporting other Asian states in “containing” China’s rise, has fueled a siege mentality among Chinese nationalists. Their response is to call for tough military action in the South China Sea, and to stage symbolic landings on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, such as those staged by Hong Kong activists on August 15.

Japan arrested the activists, but deported them soon after, thus avoiding a prolonged confrontation with China. The Japanese authorities clearly learned a lesson from their detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain two years ago, when they eventually acceded to Chinese pressure – which included a range of harsh, and escalating, political and economic measures– to release him.

Soon after the Hong Kong activists’ protest landing on the disputed islands, Japanese citizens, including local assembly members, staged their own landing there. Moreover, the Japanese government, while rejecting a further appeal from Ishihara to provide land on the isles to the Tokyo municipality, is, however, raising money to purchase some of the islands from their supposedly bankrupt Japanese owner.

Such mixed signals have further inflamed nationalist sentiments in China, and anti-Japanese demonstrations have broken out in many Chinese cities, including an attack on the Japanese ambassador’s official vehicle. Both sides urgently need to cool off, especially in order to contain their extremist elements and prevent them from taking over the issue and setting the policy agenda.

In the short term, China’s government should discourage further anti-Japanese demonstrations. Well-educated Chinese should understand that destroying Japanese cars (which are made in China) and similar behavior are not rational ways to express an opinion about a territorial dispute with Japan. And China’s government should work with the Hong Kong authorities to prevent another attempt by Chinese activists to land on Senkaku/Diaoyu again in October.

For its part, Japan should suspend its plan to buy the islands, an effort that is certain to make matters worse if it goes ahead. The status quo is that the Chinese government has not challenged Japan’s de facto control of the islands, so further action to force China’s hand would be extremely unwise.

In the medium term, the two governments should work out a formula for coping with scenarios that now play out regularly. A crisis-management team, composed of representatives of both countries’ foreign ministries, coast guards, and militaries, should not only meet regularly, but should also consult each other in emergency situations, thereby minimizing the risk that matters get out of control.

Moreover, such a formula should bar provocative actions by either side, including military exercises, such as those staged recently by China and, jointly, by the US and Japan. It should also contain a standard procedure for managing the aftermath when behavior by citizens of either country forces the two governments into unexpected situations.

In the long run, the best outcome is a peaceful resolution to the sovereignty issue, or, barring that, a compromise that satisfies both sides’ core interests. Joint development of the area’s resources, which both countries need, should be returned to the bilateral agenda.

China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping famously proposed that, for the sake of better Sino-Japanese relations, the two countries should shelve the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute for future generations to resolve. That wisdom remains the best advice to date, especially given that the consequences of a worsening bilateral relationship would extend far beyond China and Japan.

Wenran Jiang

China’s Expanding Core

TOKYO – China is now engaged in bitter disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, both located far beyond China’s 200-mile-wide territorial waters in the South China Sea. Indeed, so expansive are China’s claims nowadays that many Asians are wondering what will satisfy China’s desire to secure its “core interests.” Are there no limits, or does today’s China conceive of itself as a restored Middle Kingdom, to whom the entire world must kowtow?

So far, China has formally referred to Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang province as “core interests,” a phrase that connotes an assertion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity that will brook no compromise. Now China is attempting to apply the same term to the Senkaku Islands in its dispute with Japan, and is perilously close to making the same claim for the entire South China Sea; indeed, some Chinese military officers already have.

The Senkaku Islands, located to the west of Okinawa in the East China Sea and currently uninhabited, were incorporated into Japan by the Meiji government in 1895. At one time, there were regular residents working at a bonito-drying facility. In 1969, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) completed a seabed survey of the East China Sea, and reported the possible presence of vast underground mineral resources, including abundant oil and natural gas reserves near the Senkakus. Two years passed before Taiwan and China claimed sovereignty over the islands, in 1971, but the Japanese government’s stance has always been that Japan’s sovereignty is not in question.

In April, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a famous and articulate patriot, announced that the metropolitan government that he leads plans to acquire four of the Senkaku Islands, which are currently privately owned by Japanese citizens. Donations for the purchase from the people of Japan now exceed ¥700 million ($8.4 million).

China reacted to Ishihara’s proposal with its usual sensitivity: it refused to receive the scheduled visit of Ishihara’s son, who is Secretary-General of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, the country’s main opposition party.

Moreover, at a meeting in Beijing earlier this month between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a trilateral summit with South Korea, Wen mentioned the independence movement in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Senkaku Islands in the same breath. “It is important to respect China’s core interests and issues of major concern,” he emphasized.

Until that moment, the Chinese government had never applied the term “core interest” to the Senkaku Islands. Following Wen’s statement, the trilateral summit deteriorated. While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held bilateral talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, talks between Noda and Hu, and a scheduled meeting between Keidanren Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, were also canceled. The joint declaration issued at the summit was delayed a day, and omitted all references to North Korea – a prime concern of both Japan and South Korea.

China’s brusque treatment of Japan’s leaders probably was intended as a rebuke not only over the Senkaku Islands issue, but also for hosting the Fourth General Meeting of the World Uyghur Congress in Tokyo in May. Previously, such meetings had been held in Germany and the United States, and this one, which stressed the importance of protecting human rights and preserving the traditions, culture, and language of the Uyghur people, received no official sanction or endorsement from the Japanese government.

If gruff diplomacy was the only manifestation of China’s expansive territorial claims, Asian leaders could sleep more peacefully. But the fact is that China’s navy is becoming increasingly active in the South China Sea, at the Senkaku Islands and Scarborough Shoal in particular, but also around the Spratly Islands claimed by Vietnam. Given China’s mushrooming military budget and secretiveness, that assertiveness has set off alarm bells among the other countries bordering the South China Sea.

Moreover, China’s bullying of the Philippines included not only the dispatch of warships to Scarborough Shoals, but also the sudden imposition of import restrictions on Filipino produce. And China’s reactions toward Japan are far more paranoid since a non-LDP government took power.

The struggles for power within China’s ruling Communist Party over the purge of Bo Xilai, and the blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s escape from detention during economic talks with the US, have made Chinese leaders’ nationalist assertions even more strident than usual. No official wants to appear soft where China’s supposed “core interests” are concerned.

So far, China has not unleashed the sort of mass demonstrations against Japan and others that it has used in the past to convey its displeasure. But that probably reflects the jittery state of China’s leaders in the wake of the Bo purge: they cannot guarantee that an anti-Japan demonstration would not turn into an anti-government protest.

China’s real core interests are not in territorial expansion and hegemony over its neighbors, but in upholding the human rights and improving the welfare of its own citizens, which is the world’s core interest in China. But until China accepts that its territorial claims in the South China Sea must be discussed multilaterally, so that smaller countries like the Philippines and Vietnam do not feel threatened, China’s ever expanding “core interests” will be the root of instability in East Asia.

Yuriko Koike

Posted in: Economy, Politics