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How far is China going to heighten tensions in the region?

Publication Date : 24-06-2013

 

As long as China has committed itself to taking a path of “peaceful development”, it must take the initiative and relax tensions in its international relations.

The administration of President Xi Jinping, which has declared this year the “first year for making China a maritime power,” has been accelerating moves aimed at forcibly enclosing the East China Sea and South China Sea.

In late April, Beijing started cruise tours to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, triggering a fierce reaction from Vietnam, which has been locked in a territorial dispute with China over the islets.

Each cruise tour comprises about 200 passengers who can swim and go sightseeing on the islets, in what appears to be an attempt to make the visitors tangibly feel that China wields effective control over the chain. The scale of the tours is likely to be expanded.

‘Patriotic education’

Beijing launched the cruise tour programme after the city of Sansha was placed in charge of administering three island groups--the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank--in June last year.

The cruise tours of the Paracels are considered part of China’s “maritime version of the patriotic education programme”, along with the planned construction of a national maritime museum in the suburbs of Tianjin, northern China, with a view to broadening public support for Beijing’s bid to secure its maritime interests.

On Wednesday, Xi met with his Vietnamese counterpart on his trip to China. A joint statement released after their talks stated the two countries will “remain calm and avoid action that could complicate or escalate a dispute.”

That these two countries at loggerheads have agreed to prevent any further deterioration of ties over the dispute should be welcomed. It is crucial, however, that China and Vietnam abide by the accord, rather than just letting it end up as words on paper.

In May, Chinese surveillance ships started patrols in waters surrounding the Spratly Islands that have been under the effective control of the Philippines. This is similar to China’s regular patrols by surveillance vessels since last year in waters around the Scarborough Shoal near the Macclesfield Bank.

In February, Beijing’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, docked for the first time at its homeport in Qingdao, Shangdong Provice. China is believed poised to have the Liaoning set out for a long-distance voyage before the end of the year. Flaunting its bolstered naval capabilities may be designed to put pressure on Japan, the United States and other countries.

Chinese surveillance ships have continued to make regular intrusions in waters near the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture.

In the latest US-China summit meeting, President Barack Obama was quoted as telling Xi that the US government would not accept China intimidating Japan, a US ally. This remark can be interpreted as a warning to China over repeated provocations by its ships in the waters. Obama’s remark is important in that it will solidify the Japan-US alliance.

‘Shelving’ logic irrational

We cannot overlook the fact that high-ranking officials of the Xi administration are trying to change the status quo over the Senkakus by reiterating that the issue “must be shelved.”

Fundamentally, no territorial problem between Japan and China exists, so there is nothing to be shelved.

Back in 1992, China itself did away with the logic of “shelving” the dispute by stipulating explicitly for the first time what it claims to be China’s “sovereignty” over the Senkaku Islands in its Territorial Waters Law.

In a series of meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be held from late this month to early July, discussions will be made on various issues, including the principle of the “rule of law” in the South China Sea.

At these meetings, the Japanese government must actively explain the historial facts involving the Senkakus and the urgent need to strictly abide by internationally acceptable rules so as to persuasively convey Japan’s position.

 

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