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Publication Date : 31-12-2013


With global powers shifting from the West to the East, China is clearly asserting itself in world affairs in a variety of ways. On territorial disputes, Xiying Lei, a Ph.D. candidate at the Asia Pacific College of Australia National University, states that China’s strategy is to “make the outside world know that it is a ‘great power’.”

There is increased tension in North Asia, with China and Japan laying claim to the same islands — which the Chinese call “Diaoyu” and the Japanese call “Senkaku”. While it is unclear how the conflict will eventually be resolved, what is clear is that each country will not easily give up their claims to the territory which each considers under its own sovereignty, each having their own reasons why they consider the islands their own.

Both China and Korea have upped the ante by setting up separate Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs), while Japan has increased its military presence in the area, with the full support of the United States, which vows to defend its closest ally.

Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston, Northeast Asia deputy project director for the Crisis Group which is based in Seoul, is of opinion that concerns surrounding the overlapping ADIZs are sometimes exaggerated, and that the bureaucracies in each country may have hidden agendas and are using the defence zones to express their policy preferences.
While one reason for the great interest in the disputed islands is due to the presence of oil and other natural resources, Pinkston said that the disputes also involve other complicated issues such as economic concerns, property rights to extract resources, local politics and, to a lesser extent, security concerns.

Despite the recent announcement of China’s ADIZ, Pinkston said that the zones have in fact, been in place for decades. However, he questioned the countries’ standard operating procedures, and how the respective air forces will respond to perceived threats. They may have been set up as a safety precaution, but their true purpose depends on how the authorities and military forces manage the said zones. As of now, it seems that no country wants to “lose” to the other.

“Due to the emotional nature of territorial disputes, and with regards to the ADIZ issue, if one side reaches out to seek a compromise, it may be perceived as a weakness and this will become a domestic political problem,” Pinkston said.

Others are under the impression that China is flexing its muscles, while the United States views this as a threat to its own global influence. To this effect, US President Barack Obama has said that he will increase focus on Asia, while Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the region reaffirmed the US’ commitment to its allies and its desire for peaceful resolution to the existing conflicts.

What is the basis for each territorial claim?

According to Dr Lowell Bautista, a lecturer at the Australian University of Wollongong’s School of Law, Humanities and the Arts, China’s claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea is based on its historical records.

“China’s primary anchor for its claims is based on the principle of discovery from historical records dating as far back as 200 B.C. It also refers to the 1887 Treaty between France and China which delimited the territories of China and Vietnam, which was then a French protectorate,” he said.

However, Bautista added, while it cannot be denied that the Chinese were the first to discover the South China Sea islands, it cannot provide enough evidence of effective, peaceful and continuous occupation (of the said islands).

Fabrizio Eva, a Professor of Political and Economic Geography at the University Ca' Foscari Venice, Treviso campus, said the issues have been further complicated by juridical acts that led to the official restitution of the islands by the US to Japan in the early 1970s. Additionally, the Japanese government had bought the islands from a Japanese private owner in 2012. Since that purchase, China has stepped up in its response.

“China was particularly hostile toward Japan in September 2012. While both sides have not shown any dramatic reaction since, the hostility continues,” said Shohoko Goto, Northeast Asia Associate at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC.

Japan’s position
Highlighting Japan’s role, Goto explained that Japan’s official stance remains that there is “no dispute, because the Senkaku islands belong to Japan. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that conflict exists between Japan and China over the islands”.

Seong-hyon Lee, a fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre has a similar conclusion: “China feels that it is actually Japan who changed the status quo of the territorial dispute in 2010, when Japan decided to nationalise the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. China has since been trying to enter into dialogue with Japan, but the latter has been rejecting this request on the grounds that ‘there is no dispute because the islands belong to Japan, and there is nothing to discuss’.”

Unsurprisingly, such statements have not been well received by the Chinese. Chinese English newspaper China Daily responded with a fiery editorial. The following is an excerpt from the article published on Dec 4, 2013: "If the US is truly committed to lowering tensions in the region, it must first stop acquiescing to Tokyo's dangerous brinkmanship. It must stop emboldening belligerent Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to constantly push the envelope of Japan's encroachments and provocations."

China’s position
It is becoming increasingly obvious that China is asserting itself more and more on the international stage in a more brazen and confident manner. With a robust economy, especially in comparison to the financial problems faced by the West, China is seen by many as vying for a greater role in global affairs with equal footing to other countries. The World Bank stated that in 2012, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 7.3 per cent whereas the US only saw a growth of 1.3 per cent.

“If any country, no matter how strong or powerful that country is, dares to challenge China, Chinese people and its government will not hesitate to use all our resources to defend our sovereignty. This was made clear through events such as the 1962 Sino-Indian war, in 1969 in the Sino-Soviet border conflict, and the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war,” Lei said. 

Nevertheless, the role of the US remains, as Bautista puts it, “the principal underwriter of strategic stability in the region”.

He said China’s interests must be kept in check. “The strong and unequivocal protesting of other states is needed to counterbalance and curb China’s increasingly assertive actions—especially those that challenge international legal norms. The international community as a whole has a moral responsibility, not just to maintain peace, order and stability, but to ensure that international law is observed and respected.”

Bautista emphasised that a coming “Asian century” without a benevolent, international law-abiding superpower will not augur well for the world.

Eva said that it is difficult to predict what China’s next steps will be. Based on observation, their trend is to move slowly but constantly toward their goals, he said.

“It is undeniable that China is pushing to be a more geopolitically symbolic presence on the international stage. The oversized military presence of the US and its many mutual defence agreements with its allies in the Pacific Rim is most probably China’s secret goal,” he explained.

China’s response to other claims
Even though it claims that it is willing to discuss the territorial disputes on a bilateral basis, China has shunned attempts by multilateral organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United Nations to lend aid in dealing with the said conflicts.

Pinkston, however, sees this approach by China as well as its emphasis on bilateral dealings, as a paradox.

“Two decades ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there was a strong consensus in China for a multi-polar world. Though many Chinese were looking forward to this, it did not materialise immediately for them,” he said.

He said that as much of the world has moved towards a multi-polar system, new rules should be made on a multi-lateral setting, taking into consideration all parties involved.

He suggested that a possible solution would be to set up an ad-hoc regional institution and working group to address such issues and concerns, as this would improve ease of communication and increase transparency.

“Dialogues will reduce the risk of an accidental or even intentional clash, whether in the air or at sea,” he said. 

As there are technical issues involved, there is also a need for specialists’ opinions during discussions on the disputes, such as the ADIZ issue.

Nevertheless, Pinkston reiterated, this is a complicated issue that also involves public opinion, which if not controlled, may cause the entire process to backfire.

“Most people want to avoid conflict and military clashes, even hawkish politicians and country leaders,” he said.

America’s role
US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in November 2013 placed the spotlight once again on the US’ attempt to defuse the conflict between China and Japan. While he was warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, his trip also highlighted the contentiousness of the issue and China’s unwillingness to compromise.

Stanford University’s Lee expressed his pessimism over the US’ involvement in this conflict. “China has been somewhat successful in portraying itself in relation to the US as a ‘new type of major power’. But the underlying tone is simply that the US should not mess with China’s core interests in East Asia, just as China will respect the US’ core interests.

“To this logic, China has been pretty forceful in its assertion to the US that the territorial and ADIZ issues are a matter between China and Japan, and that the US should stay out of it.

“Based on Biden’s visit to China, I get the sense that Washington appears to be cowing under Beijing’s weight, such as China’s refusal to grant American journalists visas. With this, the US seems to have run out of effective cards to deal with China,” he concluded.

Another reason why the US is unable to be directly and actively involved in the disputes may be because of its debt of over US$17 trillion.

Even if Washington wants to reinstate its influence in the region, Goto questioned whether it is financially able to do so. Still, the cost US may have to bear for relinquishing strong ties with long-time allies such as Japan and the Philippines, would be far greater.

Possible solutions and moving forward
There is no clear solution to the issues at present, and all parties concerned should take a “wait and see” approach, Pinkston said. At the same time, they ought to seek common ground in order to avoid unfortunate outcomes. Nevertheless, he is optimistic that the issues will not escalate into military conflict.

“There is too much to lose. A derailment of economic cooperation will be extremely costly, not just for the parties involved, but for everyone in the region.”

He opined that the respective leaders know that their length of stay in office is determined in a large part by their performance in handling the economy. “A security crisis will not look good on them. Therefore it makes more sense to find a peaceful outcome that is acceptable to all. We will just have to wait and see how things unfold.”

Goto said the first step would be to acknowledge the issue, but as of now, neither Tokyo nor Beijing have initiated summit meetings despite both experiencing leadership changes over the past year. “Lack of communication is definitely not helping the situation,” he said.

Bautista believes that China knows the power of global public opinion, as well as the supremacy of international law and the rule of law.
“China has always been keen on portraying itself as a peaceful, benevolent, rising global power. Unfortunately, the world seems to think otherwise. However, it is not too late for China to mend its global image. The truth is, it is not in China’s long-term strategic interests to be overly aggressive in handling its maritime and territorial disputes.”

Regardless, the mutual consensus seems to be that neither party wishes to see the tensions escalate. Although a great deal of rhetoric has been dished out by all sides, they have shown a lot of restrain. 

The best solution would be for China and Japan to engage in dialogue sometime in the near future, and in doing so, reach a compromise so as to avoid any military clashes or aggression, which will undoubtedly have a large impact on the global community and economy.


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