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ASIA'S TERRITORIAL DISPUTES: Caught in the middle

Publication Date : 31-12-2013

 

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the much heralded Asian Century was the compass for global policymakers to set their future directions. They know the region will dominate the next 100 years.

After the end of World War II, the Asian region was peaceful enabling all countries to pursue economic and social agendas diligently. Key economic powers could concentrate on increasing productivity and improving standards of living for their populations.

China, Japan and South Korea have been the three economic giants in East Asia. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Japan was the main driving force in the region until it was overtaken by China as the world’s No. 2 economic power. South Korea has become a bigger economy with high-tech industries following economic turbulence in 1997. At this juncture, the combined economic strength of China, Japan and South Korea is formidable. They are the engine of growth for Asean and the rest of the world, especially after the financial crisis in the West in 2008. But Asean leaders are concerned that if territorial disputes remain unresolved, the much heralded Asean Community in 2015, which envisions Asean as a single production base with 600 million citizens would be hampered.

China, Japan and South Korea are Asean’s dialogue partners. Their close cooperation is pivotal to the economic integration in the region vis-?-vis new economic frameworks designed to facilitate free trade and investment. In addition, Asean also has to manage its territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea—a highly sensitive issue. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and non-Asean member Taiwan, are in dispute with China over the vast maritime zone. The three-set of maritime conflicts—in Northeast Asia (China/Japan and Japan/South Korea) and South China Sea—are interlinked due to the nature of extensive relations among conflicting and concerned parties. As such, Asean is caught in a huge dilemma to balance its relations with the three economic powers.

Territorial claims in East Asia
Growing tension from maritime territorial claims among China, Japan and South Korea is worrisome as they have impacted on the overall collective. For the first time in post-World War II, major Asian countries are confronting one another with the threat of war. The overlapping claims between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island, the Dokdo/Takeshima Island between Japan and South Korea are not new due to a contentious history. In the past, these disputes remained dormant without serious repercussions on bilateral relations. However, recent developments among these three countries have caused concerns that if this trend continues it would further destabilise the whole region as each devises security and strategic policies to protect their sovereignty. These measures would heighten the level of tension and could cause further misunderstanding.

The overlapping claims indicate the unyielding attitude of conflicting parties towards the rich resources lying underneath the disputed maritime zones. With the growing scarcity of natural resources and energy world-wide, each country will not let up on its claims.

China and Japan for nearly four decades cooperated excellently on economic and social developments. Both have benefited from cooperation especially through direct investment and technological transfer. Japan was able to access the world’s biggest market.

However, from time to time, World War II hostilities resurface denting bilateral ties. But they have been able to quickly overcome the hostility and mitigate the negative effects on burgeoning economic relations. In other words, increased economic interdependence used to restrain these countries from worsening their conflicts.

But as events unfolded in the last three years, changes in leadership, rise of nationalism, new security alignments as well shifting strategic landscapes have contributed to increasing uncertainties in East Asia. Public opinion polls and changes in national outlook have now become key variables affecting foreign relations and economic cooperation.

Balancing act
Asean has to walk a tight rope on its relations with China and Japan. The leaders are mindful of potential negative implications on their countries both collectively and individually if they choose sides between the two. Asean does not want to be drawn into the conflict involving its three most prominent dialogue partners but as the tension escalates, it is getting more difficult to maintain that balance.  Japan continues to be the region’s largest investor but China is catching up with a bigger market access.

At the recent Asean-Japan summit in Tokyo to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, Asean’s rebalancing effort was put to test. Japan tried to persuade Asean to adopt a common position over the newly declared air defence identification zone (ADIZ) of China. Asean refused outright to do so knowing fully well such a position would antagonise China and undermine relations. Whereas Japan, South Korea and the United States strongly rejected ADIZ, Asean has not made any common position.

The earlier version of a joint statement specified China’s action but some Asean countries strongly objected and wanted a watered-down version. Before the Asean-Japan summit, the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo reacted critically to the widely reported planned joint statement that would touch on ADIZ. In the end, Japan and Asean senior officials agreed on the term “freedom of overflight”, a general reference to free navigation of air space without necessarily referring to China.

This is the first time that Asean as a group mentioned the freedom of air travel. The joint statement says both sides will "enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law" and standards and practices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Deep down, Asean is also very anxious about China and its future plan on ADIZ. Asean members engaged in disputes in the South China Sea fear that China would declare a similar zone over those areas as it did over Diaoyu/Senkaku island. Viewed from that perspective, the joint Asean-Japan statement is aimed at sending a united massage to Beijing. Asean hopes that it will preempt China’s future actions.

Meantime, it is interesting to note that the territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima island has not yet entered Asean’s agenda. Japan-South Korea relations have deteriorated ever since both sides renewed their claims. In the past months, although there was a marked increase in public relations aimed at the Asean media, both countries appear to have no desire to engage Asean besides being used as a platform to air their views. It would further complicate Asean +3 relations if Asean takes into account South Korea’s outward rejection of the ADIZ considering that in the past two decades, Beijing and Seoul have developed very close economic cooperation.

Faced with emerging strategic rivalries and conflicts, Asean needs to maintain its neutrality and unity over the overlapping disputes among the three dialogue partners. Any bias, real or imagined, can quickly damage overall cooperation between them and Asean.

New dynamics
After the new administration in Beijing under President Xi Jinjping took office in March 2013, there have been some positive responses on the code of conduct (COC) for South China Sea from the new foreign minister, Wang Yi. Wang is considered an old Asean hand due to his 10-odd years working with the grouping in various capacities. He was instrumental in coming up with the draft on the 2002 Declarations of Conduct of Concerned Parties in South China Sea. Compared with his predecessor, Yang Jiechi, Wang is friendlier and has a better rapport with Asean leaders.

Fresh from his appointment in early April, Wang met with Asean senior officials in Beijing to reaffirm China’s desire to settle the South China Sea disputes through peaceful means. It was clear that China would go for joint development and leave the disputed territorial issues to be settled later. He also compared the much-heralded Chinese dream with the Asean dream on community-building. He said both countries have similar aspirations to build peace and prosperity for their peoples.

After the failure to issue a joint communique in July 2012 after the annual meeting in Phnom Penh, Asean’s reputation was greatly damaged. It was the first time in its 46-year-history that the member countries were unable to compromise over the text describing a regional situation—in this case, the disputes in South China Sea. The Asean chair’s inability to work with all conflicting and non-conflicting members coupling with the lack of perseverance in seeking compromise gave a valuable lesson for Brunei. During the second week of its chair, Brunei declared succinctly that one of its key objectives was to reduce tension in the South China Sea and increase trust between Asean and China. Throughout its chairmanship, Brunei has successfully carried out its mission.

A year has elapsed since Asean-China ties hit the lowest ebb. Now both sides are increasing their engagement. All top Chinese leaders have visited key Asean members. Wang himself stopped over all 10 members. At their meetings, their foreign ministers have given strong signals to begin negotiations along with the implementation of the COC.

The improved Asean-China atmosphere was also attributed to the new coordinating country, Thailand, which has close ties with China and is not a claimant. Bangkok has taken its role seriously, seeing itself as a neutral party to ascertain the COC process would progress as much as possible. A series of working groups and senior official meetings have been planned by Thailand next year.

Asean’s future role
As far as Asean’s relations with China and Japan are concerned, Asean  needs to progress over the CoC in the next 18 months while Thailand is still coordinating country. So far, Bangkok has performed its role quite satisfactory encouraging increased consultation and engagement on both sides. New joint development programmes have been initiated and future funding would be forthcoming. Thailand has already proposed a maritime conservation project and studies on tuna stock in South China.

China’s relations with Asean, especially among the new members, are strongly tied to economic-centred approaches. This trend will continue as China’s growing political clout is matched with being No. 2 global economic power. Asean must rebalance itself with major dialogue partners. This is easier said than done. At the moment, China has been the largest trading partner with Asean. Beijing is no longer shying away from providing economic and technical assistance to Asean members. Against this backdrop, Japan, which used to be the main donor and key provider of technology transfer, has revitalised its diplomacy toward Asean with additional elements concerning security and strategic relations. This is a big shift from its previous approach of focusing on economic cooperation.

Asean’s world view is quite simple: a multi-polar world with Asean serving as the pivot in the region.

 

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