Foreign Policy Blogs

Ganging up on China

For those physically-challenged weaklings who are constantly badgered and harassed by stronger bullies, joining a gym and working out can be a rational response. A quicker method, however, would be to enlist the assistance of your friends. No longer having to rely on your own limited defense against a stronger bully, you can take greater security in numbers, and present a unified front which may deter any outside aggression.

China’s recent maritime aggression toward its neighbors is leading to such a unified front among smaller nations in the region. The most alarming dispute is in the East China Sea over a group of five tiny, uninhabited islets in the East China Sea known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. While China has never formally controlled the islands, they were considered in the Chinese realm until Japan annexed the islands in 1895. Following Japan’s wartime defeat in 1945, the U.S. took over the administration of the islands, but left their sovereignty vague in a peace treaty signed in 1951.

Maritime disputes in the region are nothing new, but seem to have taken a dangerous turn last September 11 after Tokyo agreed to buy the three islets it doesn’t already own from a private owner for $23 million. Tokyo’s stated rationale for purchasing the remaining islets was to keep them from control by Shintaro Ishihara, former governor of Tokyo and president of the Japan Restoration Party, who had launched a campaign to purchase the islets. Ishihara is an ardent China-basher who denies the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 ever took place and hopes to change Japan’s war-renouncing constitution. Many Chinese, however, did not buy this explanation – leaders in Beijing were furious and nationalists led huge anti-Japan demonstrations across China. Both Chinese and Japanese leaders are laying claim to these islands not for their guano deposits but for what lies underneath – fishing rights and potential vast oil and gas deposits. Matters worsened after China started issuing passports with maps claiming disputed territory and after its representatives provided the United Nations with detailed claims to disputed waters in the East China Sea. In the most serious incident yet, Japan claimed a Chinese frigate locked its weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese navy vessel on January 30. China has angrily denied the charge, but if true, this incident is about as serious as it gets short of firing a shot and possibly starting a war. Japan’s response so far has been limited to scrambling its jets and chasing away intruding naval vessels, but a new two-pronged strategy based on defense and diplomacy is in the works.

Japan’s new strategy starts with a beefing up its own defense forces, including the creation of a special unit comprising 10 new large patrol boats to boost its own surveillance of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Japan realizes that working out at the gym may make you stronger, but it helps to have strong friends, and Japan is assisting its allies in the region with their own defenses.

After last month’s visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Manila, Japan announced it intends to donate to the Philippines a number of newly built patrol vessels, costing $11 million each, in order to ramp up regional efforts to monitor China’s maritime activity in disputed waters. The Japanese coastguard also plans to train Philippine personnel as part of additional efforts to boost security cooperation with Southeast Asia. The Philippines is involved in a dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, where the permanent stationing of three of China’s ships to Bajo de Masinloc, or Huangyan island has resulted in a Philippine government request last month to a United Nations tribunal to arbitrate the disputed waters. The dispute has even carried over into the Philippine’s largest bookstore chain, where Chinese-made globes reflecting China’s controversial claims in the South China Sea have been removed. Japan also has offered training support to Vietnamese forces, who claim all of the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands, as well as the Spratly chain – also contested by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have been calling for multilateral negotiations, under Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to decide on a code of conduct to reduce tensions. Naturally China, as the strongest nation in the region, prefers to negotiate one-on-one, much like a bully would like to fight several fights individually rather than face a gang.

Perhaps the purchase of the remaining islets by the Japanese government was intended to solidify its claim to resource extraction in that area. After all, Tokyo has other claims which stretch far and wide, encompassing an exclusive economic zone of 2.8 million square miles – five times greater than China’s claims. Tokyo’s claims even extend to the island of Okinotorishima (“remote bird island”) which lies 1,250 miles from the capital. But while China’s latest show of strength in the East China Sea may be helping bolster the new Chinese leader’s nationalist credentials at home, its recent moves may prove counterproductive in the long run. With each provocation from the Chinese side, its smaller and weaker neighbors are finding greater security by ramping up their defenses unilaterally, joining forces in a multilateral effort, and strengthening their ties with an America which is taking greater interest in the region.

 

Author

Gary Sands
Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory, and contributed a number of op-eds for the South China Morning Post, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Times, The Diplomat, International Policy Digest, Eurasia Review, and Indo-Pacific Review. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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