Big trouble in the East China Sea

A row between Japan, China and Taiwan over a few small islands reveals the arbitrariness of international relations.

James Woudhuysen

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Outside East Asia, very few people know where the Senkaku islands are. But inside East Asia, the Senkaku prompt great bitterness between Japan, China and Taiwan. At stake is the national pride of each country, which believes that it alone owns them. At stake also are each country’s hopes that it might find oil or gas nearby, and its desire to sail round them unimpeded. But there is more. The Senkaku, and islands like them, signify how, among all the continents in the world, Asia’s past century has been the most enduringly explosive – and how its next could follow the same pattern.

Two hundred nautical miles (nm) west of the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, 200 nm east of the province of Fujian in the People’s Republic of China, and just 120 nm north-east of Taiwan, there lies an archipelago of five uninhabited islands, covering just seven square kilometres and covered in jungle. Coming from Tokyo, a team of 25 city officials, surveyors and – inevitably – estate agents circled the islands just this weekend, hoping to reinforce Japan’s control over them. In the past, similar moves by both Japan and China have prompted fury, and not a little diplomatic concern elsewhere.

In mid-August, a group of Chinese sailed to the islands in order to uphold Beijing’s claim to them, only to meet with deportation at the hands of Japan. A little later, 150 Japanese nationalists came by in a flotilla and 10 of them swam ashore to raise the Japanese flag. Then, in the latest of a series of tit-for-tat episodes stretching back years, demonstrators in several Chinese cities insisted that Japan get out of the islands. All that’s missing now is that, on top of Tokyo’s rule over what it calls Senkaku and Beijing’s claim over what it calls Diaoyu, Taiwan makes an incursion over what it calls Diaoyutai.

What’s going on? Could all this lead to some kind of fearsome war between Japan, China and Taiwan? And why are there disputes not only in the East China Sea, but also in the South China Sea? There, south-east of Hainan Island (China) and east of Vietnam, China controls the Paracel Islands and resists the complaints of Taiwan and Vietnam about them. There, too, all three parties occupy and are in contention over the myriad Spratly islands, which, lying west of the Philippines and north of Malaysia and Brunei, are also partly controlled and certainly contested by these three nations.

That is not the end of it. In the South China Sea, China and Taiwan are in a three-cornered row with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, a ring of rocks and reefs west off Manila. And, midway between the Korean peninsula and Japan, the fact that rocks there are ruled by South Korean police and known in Seoul as the Dokdo inspires fury in Tokyo. Why?

Most accounts of the maritime tensions in the oceans off East Asia attribute them to two factors. First, blame is laid at the door of rising nationalism in China and Japan, which, it is said, is encouraged by governments keen to distract their domestic populations from economic problems at home. Second, experts point to natural resources – rare minerals, fish, but above all oil and gas – around different groups of islands, and to their strategic location in terms of trade routes and national security.

Nationalism matters, but not that much

In April, Shintaro Ishihara, the fiercely nationalistic governor of Tokyo, threatened to establish municipal ownership of the three out of five Senkaku that are privately owned by rich Japanese people. It’s owing to Ishihara that the team from Tokyo has just gone to case the islands, with the aim of soon using money raised by him – currently standing at about $19million – to execute a purchase. Indeed, Ishihara wants Japan’s Self-Defence Forces on the islands.

On the other hand, the BBC reports that anti-Japanese protests in China were ‘almost certainly sanctioned by the Chinese authorities, as they were well policed’. In the past, it adds, those same authorities have ‘used anti-Japanese sentiment to deflect criticism of their rule’.

All this is true enough. The Japanese economy is going nowhere fast, and even China has met with faltering economic growth – as well as widespread strikes and social protests, on top of the leadership instability recently set off by the fall from grace of erstwhile Politburo wannabe Bo Xilai after his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman. Yet a closer look reveals that the nationalisms so knowingly invoked by commentators aren’t as burgeoning as they suggest. Ishihara is notorious for having a bark bigger than his bite, and nationalism in Japan today only gains salience because of the general paralysis of the government there. Also, the Japanese government did not grant the team that visited the Senkaku permission to land on them, for fear of provoking Beijing.

China is not so different. The BBC reported that ‘angry protests broke out across China’. But as it continued, this amounted to little more than the leisurely, much-photographed vandalising of Japanese-made police cars in Shenzhen, a noisy gathering by the Japanese consulate in Guangzhou, a demonstration of just 200 people in Hong Kong, a ‘down with Japanese imperialism’ banner in Shanghai, and the closure of two Japanese shops in Chengdu. Very little at all happened in Beijing.

These actions hardly herald the start of a Third World War – at least not yet. When Chinese workers strike, they do more than throw bottles of water at the police, as happened in Shenzhen. When residents of Hong Kong protest the lack of democracy there, they turn out in hundreds of thousands, not hundreds.

Nationalism is important in East Asia; but it is more top-down artifice than it is bottom-up obsession, and remains, in Japan, a marginal phenomenon. It certainly cannot be compared with the passions that prevailed before the Second World War.

Resource wars

What about the other explanation for island disputes: that they revolve around natural resources, trade routes and military access? In 2012, sages everywhere believe that behind every international spat lie the dynamics of ‘resource wars’. The leading exponent of this dogma, US professor Michael Klare, holds that the East and South China seas are ‘contested resource zones’, and that there is ‘no reason to believe’ that armed combat will not emerge over them, since ‘existing sources of critical materials’ face ‘exhaustion’ (1). We can pass over the resource-depletion side of Klare’s ideas, since new resources are continually being discovered (as BP’s energy review has noted). But isn’t the rest of his argument plausible?

Well, take the East China Sea. First, Japan and China are the world’s foremost importers of oil – not least because, over land and sea, the entire Asia-Pacific region’s proportion of the world’s proven hydrocarbon reserves is tiny: just 3.3 per cent of oil and 8.7 per cent of gas. Second, note that at the end of 2010, proven reserves of oil over the whole Asia-Pacific region amounted to just six billion tonnes and proven reserves of gas stood at 571.8 trillion cubic feet. Finally, take account of the fact that China has estimated that the East China Sea could have reserves of 21.8 billion tonnes of oil and 170-210 trillion cubic feet of gas. Altogether, then, it’s clear that the potential level of hydrocarbons locally available is pretty significant.

There is something else, too. In 1969, the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, in the usual UN manner, inflamed Sino-Japanese relations by suggesting that there might be large hydrocarbon deposits near the Senkaku themselves. Yet despite all this, the fact remains that no oil has ever been found in or around the Senkaku (2). Estimates of potential reserves are one thing, but proven reserves are another. Around the Senkaku, geopolitical posturings – international power politics – drive attempts to locate natural resources more than resource requirements drive the planting of flags. Asked how significant hydrocarbon reserves in the East China Sea are, Canadian maritime security expert James Manicom is commendably sober: ‘not very significant at all’, he says, ‘especially when considered against Chinese and Japanese energy consumption’.

It is a similar story in the South China Sea. In May, China National Offshore Oil Corp offended the Philippines by launching China’s first deep-water drilling rig near the Scarborough Shoal. But though no doubt the move was partly motivated by the prospect of finding black gold, even China’s strongly nationalist Global Times noted, quoting ‘analysts’, that it was designed ‘to reinforce China’s territorial claims in the region’. As with the dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas, hopes about oil under the seas have their place, but populist lunges for territory logically precede them.

The specificity of conflicts in East Asia

In East Asia, it’s the sea, not the land or even the air, that’s the main event in terms of trade and military manoeuvres, which are certainly more real than putative reserves of oil and gas. As Alessio Patalano, a naval strategy expert at Kings College, London, points out, the sea accounts for 90 per cent of freight in East Asia, and the Senkaku are at the centre of the region’s trade routes (3). At the same time, Patalano adds, maritime boundaries can’t be permanently occupied or defended. That is why islands east of Asia, which can be occupied and which proved rather significant in the 1941-5 Pacific War between Japan and the US, play a big role in animosities.

When, in turn, one looks at all the island disputes in the East and South China Seas, the striking thing about them is how long they go back.

Despite all today’s frictions between China and Japan, for instance, the two countries have, if anything, cooled their respective nationalist hotheads in recent years, as trade between them, assisted by China’s rise, has flourished. Even in energy, there has been some Sino-Japanese collaboration, including the signing of a ‘de-escalating’ deal in June 2008 deal allowing Japan to invest in Chinese exploration for gas in the South China Sea (4).

But differences on islands have a much more historic character than these temporary agreements. For example: Japan first gained formal jurisdiction over the Senkaku in 1895, when victory in its first war with China gave Tokyo not just those islands, but also, and much more significantly, Formosa – now known as Taiwan. Japan’s defeat in the Second World War subsequently left the status of the Senkaku unclear; but when the US ended its occupation of Okinawa in 1972, the islands reverted to Japanese control, so prompting Chinese and Taiwanese anger.

Outside the context of real trade war or war itself, and with the obvious exception of Taiwan, whose independence still very much riles Beijing, East Asia’s contested islands have little intrinsic utility. So it isn’t too hard to see that disagreements about them must reflect something else. And that something is simply this: from Japan’s Meiji restoration (1866-8) onward, the growth of different countries in Asia has been impetuous, unresolved and highly militarised (see The forgotten history of Pearl Harbor). Asia, home already to wars between Germany and Russia (1941-45), India and China (1962) and India and Pakistan (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) has, on its Eastern reaches, seen a series of conflagrations.

Before and for six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, for instance, nothing appeared able to stop Japan. Thus when, in late 1937, Japan’s army occupied the newly established Chinese capital of Nanjing, it tortured, raped and killed about 300,000 civilians in just six weeks – only for the Chinese Communist Party to keep quiet about the episode for many years. It is only with China and South Korea’s more recent and burgeoning economic ascents that these countries have really made a big deal of Japanese imperialism’s conduct in the 40 years following 1905 – the year in which, following its 1895 victory over China and Formosa, Japan took Korea under its ‘protection’ (it annexed Korea in 1910). Nevertheless, Tokyo’s catalogue of misdeeds, stretching over the first half of the twentieth century, is not easily forgotten by its neighbours.

By themselves, then, the Senkaku islands, or whatever one chooses to call them, amount to almost nothing. But behind them in the past stand the fate of Nanking, the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Chinese civil war (1945-50), the Korean War (1950-53), the killing of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in President Sukarno’s anti-communist repression (1965-6), and the wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, in which two million died. And behind the Senkaku in the future stands the possibility of international capital shifting labour-intensive manufacturing away from China, toward youthful, low-wage countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia or – despite the slowdown and the political infighting there – Vietnam.

It is this history and these prospects that drive antagonisms in East Asia. They don’t just form the indispensable context for what pundits glibly describe as the clash of nationalisms and of claims over natural resources there; they are more powerful than either of these things. One need only think of the complicated resentments that surround Taiwan, and also North and South Korea, to see that nationalism does only a certain amount, and resources still less, to explain the forces at work.

Arbitrary disputes can certainly lead to war

Today, the world’s increasing focus on Asia as a place for capital accumulation and innovation is complemented by increasing assertiveness in the foreign policy of different Asian states, and by rapid technological advance in Asia’s various defence sectors. But the various territorial claims on islands around East Asia are not equal: if Tokyo’s attitude toward the Senkaku, and toward the Dokdo islands controlled by South Korea, is peremptory, so is the Chinese Communist Party’s stance toward the islands claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others.

It is also the case that sabre-rattling over islands around East Asia reflects the incoherence of the Japanese state and Japanese politics, as well as China’s bizarre web of competing state or para-statal agencies – fisheries, marine surveillance and safety, local government, armed forces, foreign affairs, energy companies, tourism, environmental protection, coastguard and customs.

Enter America

But the final, most contemporary and arguably decisive factor heating up disputes off East Asia lies formally outside it. That factor is US president Barack Obama’s October 2011 ‘pivot’ to all of Asia, and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s subsequent tours of the continent and its outlying regions, in which, among other provocative statements, she has proclaimed a US national interest in ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea. The Obama administration has increased its military presence in northern Australia, offered all China’s rivals renewed guarantees of military support, and embarked on ‘defence’ exercises with both the Philippines and Japan. All these overt attempts – leave aside the covert ones – to encircle and restrain China can only make more waves around the seas of East Asia. Moreover, disputes between US allies, and in the first place between Japan and South Korea, can only unnerve Washington.

Like Japan, the US is in great economic difficulty today, and feels a need both to up its rhetoric and brandish its weapons over the East Asian theatre. Once more, however, no clear ultra-nationalist intent or imperialist designs are much at issue with the US, any more than they are with Japan. Equally, China has no special desire to upset the global apple cart by changing its current position as a ‘status quo’ power in international relations.

What really stands out in all the disputes off East Asia is their arbitrary nature. For fishing trawlers, the governor of Tokyo or a few swimmers to act as a casus belli is nothing short of ridiculous. As Min Gyo Koo, a professor at Seoul National University, has also pointed out about the Senkaku: ‘[Japan and China] have been deterred from pushing for a more definitive political showdown with respect to the island dispute in the interest of maintaining the lucrative trade and investment relations that both countries have enjoyed [with each other] since 1972. In spite of the fact that the island dispute remains unresolved, both parties have found it a convenient strategy to shelve final resolution attempts rather than to risk the rupture of vastly consequential, common strategic and economic interests.’ (5)

However, for all the economic intertwining of different states in East Asia, war is never the kind of rational enterprise that takes account of such factors. A silly incident can all too easily set off a chain reaction. Nor does our tale of Asia’s dissonances quite amount to the full picture. Over the South China Sea, India supports Vietnam; elsewhere, China has alliances with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, opponents of India. Meanwhile the fact that Russia occupies four of the southern Kuril Islands, which lie between it and Japan, today still prevents the two countries from agreeing a formal treaty ending the hostilities of the Second World War.

Arbitrariness in international relations is not confined to the East and South China Seas – the role of the West in the Middle East, or in Central Asia, confirms that. But around the Senkaku and other islands, arbitrariness is compounded by the special, maritime geography of East Asia; by the special, turbulent history of the Asia as a whole; by China’s climb to world prominence; and by the thrashing around of Japan and, even more, the US.

In the waters of East Asia, today’s unprecedented arbitrariness in international affairs makes for unprecedented dangers.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas conference session, ‘The giants of Asia’, Sunday 21 October, at the Barbican, London.

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