NEW YORK, Sept 27 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday urged China and Japan to let “cool heads” prevail in a festering dispute over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea that has soured ties between Asia’s two largest economies.
Clinton met Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on the sidelines of this week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York and said it was important to ratchet down tensions over the islands, known as the Diaoyu islands in China and the Senkakus in Japan, a senior State Department official said.
“The secretary … again urged that cooler heads prevail, that Japan and China engage in dialogue to calm the waters,” the official told reporters.
“We believe that Japan and China have the resources, have the restraint, have the ability to work on this directly and take tensions down, and that is our message to both sides,” the official said.
Clinton was due to meet Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan in a three-way meeting on Friday. Japan and South Korea, two close U.S. allies, have also seen their relationship rocked in recent months by maritime territorial disputes.
Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply since Japan bought the islands from their private owner, hurting bilateral trade ties and tourism while sparking protests across China.
In hour-long talks on the sidelines of the United Nations on Tuesday, Japan’s Gemba urged China to exercise restraint over the dispute. Japanese diplomats described the meeting as “tense,” as Gemba endured a stern lecture from China’s Yang.
The islands – located in waters thought to be rich in natural gas deposits – have been administered by Japan since 1895, but China has declared them “sacred territory” and Taiwan has also asserted its own sovereignty over the area.
Tokyo and Beijing have traded increasingly sharp words in the dispute, which has seen both countries send patrol boats in a game of cat-and-mouse in the waters near the disputed islands, raising concerns that an unintended collision or other incident could escalate into a broader clash.
The United States has repeatedly said it takes no position on the sovereignty dispute, but believes it is important for China and Japan to work out their differences peacefully.
In her meeting with Yang, Clinton also touched on territorial disputes in the South China Sea which have set Beijing against a number of its Southeast Asian neighbors including close U.S. ally the Philippines.
China has resisted calls by the United States and some Southeast Asian countries to agree on a multilateral framework to settle the disputes, preferring to engage with each of the other less powerful claimants individually.
The U.S. official said Clinton welcomed moves by China to restart informal meetings with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), most recently in Cambodia two weeks ago, as a sign of progress.
“We expect these meetings are going to continue in the lead-up to the East Asia Summit in November,” the official said. “This is precisely what the secretary has been advocating, that they restart a dialogue.”
Clinton and her Chinese counterpart also discussed North Korea, which remains locked in a dispute with the international community over its nuclear program, as well as the possible next steps as the world’s major powers confront Tehran over its own nuclear ambitions, the official said.
Clinton also raised the issue of Syria, where China has joined Russia in blocking U.S.-led moves within the U.N. Security Council to take tough measures against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his government engages in a bloody struggle against armed rebels.
Defence minister A K Antony was in Maldives a few days back trying to give a boost to India-Maldives defence ties. He was there ostensibly to inaugurate ‘Senahiya’ a military hospital built with Indian assistance but what his visit really underscored was the reality that a change of government in Male is not likely to affect the course of ties between the two nations.
As Antony made clear “India has always considered its relations with Maldives as very special.” And the defence minister of Maldives Mohamed Nazim reciprocated by adding, “Governments will change both in the Maldives and India.
Yet the enduring friendship that exists between the two countries will only improve and expand.”
India refused to take sides when Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of Maldives, was ousted from power in a military putsch earlier this year in February and since then has reached out to the new president, Mohamed Waheed, assuring him of New Delhi’s continuing cooperation.
The reason has been very simple: India simply cannot afford to alienate the government in Male given China’s growing reach. The president of Maldives was in China earlier this month when Beijing announced a $500 million package of economic assistance for Male. New Delhi views Maldives as central to the emerging strategic landscape in the Indian Ocean as it straddles the vital sea lines of communication between East Asia and the Middle East.
During the latest visit of the Indian defence minister, the two sides decided to elevate defence cooperation with New Delhi deciding to station a Defence Attaché in Male, extending the deployment of its ALH Dhruv helicopter by two more years, providing training to Maldivian Air Wing, positioning an Indian Navy Afloat Support Team to train Maldivian naval personnel and providing assistance for the surveillance of the exclusive economic zone. New Delhi and Male underscored the importance of these measures as a sign of a united front against challenges of terrorism and non-state actors.
The small island nation, despite its size, has suddenly become a hotly contested arena between the two rising powers in the region, China and India. India had always viewed Maldives as important for maintaining security in the Indian Ocean region but recent attempts by Beijing to expand its footprint in Maldives and the larger Indian Ocean region have raised the stakes for New Delhi. China has been busy forging special ties with various island nations on India’s periphery including Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.
China’s attempt to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean came into stark relief last year when reports emerged of an offer from Seychelles – another small but strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean – to China for a base to provide relief and resupply facilities to the PLA Navy.
Though it was promptly denied by Beijing, it underscored the changing balance of power in the Indian Ocean region and the concomitant changes it might eventually lead to. India has traditionally been the main defence provider for Seychelles – providing armaments and training to the Seychelles Peoples’ Defence Forces (SPDF). Earlier this year, India extended a $50 million line of credit and $25 million grant to Seychelles in an attempt to cement strategic ties with the island nation.
But China has been extremely proactive in courting Seychelles since the Chinese president, Hu Jintao’s visit to the island nation in 2007. Much to India’s consternation, Beijing is now involved in the training of SPDF and is also providing military hardware. China has expanded its military cooperation with Seychelles, helping in the maritime surveillance of the EEZ by providing it two Y-2 turboprop aircrafts.
The Chinese defence minister was in Sri Lanka earlier this month to offer support worth $100 million for various welfare projects in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, areas that were beset with Tamil insurgency. At a time when the domestic political constraints have made it difficult for New Delhi to reach out to Colombo, Beijing has been quick to fill that vacuum. Even Mauritius, whose security is virtually guaranteed by Indian naval presence, has been unable to resist the lure of Beijing.
With the rise in the military capabilities of China and India, the two militaries are increasingly rubbing against each other as China expands its presence in the Indian Ocean region and India makes its presence felt in East and Southeast Asia. The Indian ambassador to the US recently suggested that South China Sea could be viewed “as the ante chamber of Indian Ocean” and India was looking at “freedom of navigation, looking at trade, at humanitarian assistance to disaster relief.” New Delhi has seen China getting into confrontations over barren rocks in South and East China Seas and is drawing its own lessons.
The security dilemma between China and India is real and it is growing. The question is whether the two nations can manage it in a way that this competitive dynamic doesn’t spill over into an open conflict. Despite all the hyperbole in New Delhi about the continuing attractions of ‘non-alignment,’ there is no alternative to strong US-India maritime cooperation not only to manage China’s rising strategic profile in the Indian Ocean as well for the management for global maritime commons. This is something that New Delhi and Washington will have to seriously think about as the balance of power alters rapidly in the Indian Ocean region.