Japan-China dispute and South East Asia!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Two top economic, financial and technological powers of Asian continent, China and Japan exert considerable influence over the world affairs.
Ties between China and Japan have been strained by a territorial row over a group of islands, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. At the heart of the dispute are eight uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea. They have a total area of about 7 sq km and lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan’s southern-most prefecture, Okinawa.
The islands, the mutual problem for the Asia-Pacific sea giants, are now controlled by Japan. They matter because they are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. They are also in a strategically significant position, amid rising competition between the USA and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
As the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue highlights the more robust attitude, China has been taking to its territorial claims in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It poses worrying questions about regional security as China’s military modernizes amid the US “pivot” to Asia.
The dispute has rumbled relatively quietly for decades. But in April 2012, a fresh row ensued after outspoken right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner. The Japanese government then reached a deal to buy three of the islands from the owner in a move to block Ishihara’s more provocative plan. But this angered veto member China, triggering public and diplomatic protests. Since then, Chinese government ships have regularly sailed in and out of what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands, invoking protests from Tokyo.
In November 2013, China announced the creation of a new air-defence identification zone, which would require any aircraft in the zone – which covers the islands – to comply with rules laid down by Beijing. Japan labeled the move a “unilateral escalation” and said it would ignore it, as did the USA.
Meanwhile, Japan has been trying to forge closer security ties with Southeast Asian nations and build a counter-balance to China’s ‘expansionist’ agenda. Japan will sign a defence pact with Indonesia next week, the latest effort by Tokyo to forge closer security ties with Southeast Asian region. Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, has been a self-appointed broker in the myriad territorial disputes between its neighbours and China over the South China Sea.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits Tokyo next week for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the two sides will sign an agreement on increasing cooperation in military training and technology, the officials said. Currently, the two countries only have an agreement for the exchange of military students. Although it will be a non-binding agreement, it is seen as the first step in bolstering defence ties between them. The document that that will be signed will be on “capacity building, cooperational defense and also peacekeeping operations,” said Armanatha Nasir, spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry. Other officials said the two countries could also discuss sharing of intelligence. A Japanese foreign ministry official said Widodo’s trip sends a “big message” as this will be his first state visit outside Southeast Asia.
However, Widodo will also visit China immediately after his stop in Japan. Indonesia and China have a more developed military relationship and Jakarta has bought Chinese-made missilies and other military hardware. Widodo will bring up the South China Sea issue as part of regional stability talks during his visit to Japan and China, Nasir said.
Japan is supplying maritime patrol boats to Vietnam and the Philippines and will also hold its first naval exercises with the Philippines in the coming months. For Japan, closer ties with Indonesia could also give its defence firms a better chance to compete against South Korean military equipment makers, who are establishing themselves in the region, a Japanese defence ministry official said.
Japan has already bolstered partnerships with the Philippines and Vietnam, the two countries most at odds with China over a territorial row in the South China Sea. Japan itself is embroiled in a bitter dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, further to the north.
Tokyo has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, but worries about becoming isolated should China dominate a waterway through which much of Japan’s ship-borne trade passes. The defence cooperation with Southeast Asian nations is also in line with a more muscular security policy advocated by Abe, who wants to loosen the restraints of Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution, and dovetails with Washington’s “rebalance” toward Asia.
The US-Japan ties even beyond their NATO links worry Beijing because Washington interferes with East Asian affairs on behalf of Japan. The USA and Japan forged a security alliance in the wake of World War II and formalized it in 1960. Under the deal, the US is given military bases in Japan in return for its promise to defend Japan in the event of an attack. This means if conflict were to erupt between China and Japan, Japan would expect US military back-up. US President Barack Obama has confirmed that the security pact applies to the islands – but has also warned that escalation of the current row would harm all sides.
Though China remains the largest credit givers to USA, each nation regards each other as a potential adversary as well as a strategic partner. The partnership between China and the United States has been described by world leaders and academicians as the world’s most important bilateral relationship of the century. At the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2014, USA and China confirmed that they wanted to improve their relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that a confrontation between the two countries would be a disaster.
In a drastic departure from American policy decision, the US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the United States did not seek to contain China. China–United States relations have generally been stable with some periods of open conflict, most notably during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Currently, China and the United States have mutual political, economic, and security interests.
Since China remains the largest foreign creditor to the United States, Beijing does not think USA as its real threat.
China’s interest in the Asia Pacific/South East region lies beyond the disputed islands.