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China is Opening a Confrontation on the Sea

SAN SALVADOR, BAHAMAS, Dec 18 2012 (IPS) - The victory of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the recent Japanese elections, with Shinzo Abe coming back as prime minister after five years, will probably mean an escalation of tensions with China. Both countries are embarking on a fresh burst of nationalism, but for different reasons.

Roberto Savio Credit:

Roberto Savio.

Japan is suffering from an economic and political crisis. The economy is stagnating (albeit at a high level), and Abe will be heading the sixth government in five years. His party had been in power almost with interruption since the end of the Second World War, until he resigned abruptly in 2007 for serious health reasons.

The Japanese tried for a change, and in 2009 put the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in power, which rapidly went through three prime ministers in just three years. The DPJ has been a terrible administrator and its handling of the nuclear disaster and tsunami in 2011 has been completely incomprehensible. During a visit to Japan earlier this year, I heard from refugees housed in a large camp in the north that they had not seen an official in 18 months. In the meantime, Abe found a medicine that worked and made his comeback, largely thanks to the debacle of the DPJ. But nothing has changed – Japan has an old prime minister with a new medicine, but there are no new ideas or new leaders.

What is new is that the tide in Japan has shifted in the direction of nationalism. Not only is Abe a hawk who has always minimised Japanese aggression in Asia, even denying the enslavement of Korean women as prostitutes for the Japanese army. More seriously, he wants to eliminate Article 19 of the constitution, which forbids Japan from having an army for offensive purposes and commits the country to peace. This can only come about through a referendum and, lately, the citizens of three of the largest Japanese cities have elected right-wing mayors.

The economic crisis is bringing the usual escape from reality, with politicians claiming that they will go back to the old good days and people wanting to believe that this is possible – “All we need is a strong leader, forget the economy, globalisation and other structural problems”.

Rising nationalism in China has totally different roots. Xi Jinping, who is set to become China’s new president in March 2012, has much more power than in past transitions, but knows well that the idea of communism is no longer vital and that he has to come up with some popular idea for rallying the people behind him. So he speaks about “fu xing”, the idea of “renewal”, which has always been a strong element in Chinese history, and he associates that with the “Chinese dream”. His speeches have mixed bolder economic policies with anti-corruption measures, a vigorous military build-up and a muscular foreign policy. The Chinese have not forgotten the humiliation of the two Opium Wars in the 19th century, when the Western powers used arms to impose their right to sell opium freely in China during the Qing dynasty.

Beside the use of “fu xing” in his speeches, it is worth noting that, two months before his election in November as general secretary of China’s Communist Party, Xi was appointed as head of a powerful inter-agency group high up in the Chinese Government to oversee maritime disputes. And it was during Xis tenure that the conflict over the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands flared up.

The islands were originally Chinese, but in 1895 were annexed by Japan during the first Sino-Japanese war (another Chinese humiliation), amidst general indifference. But some years ago, a geological survey found that the islands could have deposits of gas and oil. The ultra-nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, wanted to buy those three barren and uninhabited islands from their private Japanese owner as a sign of Japanese muscle. To outsmart Ishihara, Japan’s outgoing prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, bought them for the government. This, of course, met with a sharp Chinese response and enormous mass demonstrations, which, while allowed by the government, were basically spontaneous. Since then, boats from both countries have been to the islands in a show of sovereignty.

Then, on Dec. 13, on the eve of the Japanese elections, a Chinese plane flew over the islands, with five Japanese F-15 fighter jets sent to intercept it.

As the late Tarzi Vittachi[1] famously said, “Everything is always about something else”. In this case, it is about the consequences of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), concluded in 1982, which basically gives countries “economic exclusive rights” to an area of up to 650 kilometres around their coasts.  Because of its many islands (Minami, Ogasawaram, Izu) situated 2,000 kilometres from Tokyo, Japan thus has an exclusive maritime zone of 4.5 million square kilometres, the ninth largest in the world. China, with more coast than Japan, has only 880,000 square kilometres, ranking 31st in the world, between the Maldives and Somalia. Furthermore, China is blocked by the maritime zones of the United States (islands such as Guam, Palau, Caroline, etc.), the Philippines and South Korea.

Let us add that Obama has announced that, by 2016, 60 percent of the U.S. fleet will be at sea around China. This will include six aircraft carriers and all the most advanced weapons, from nuclear submarines to electronic shields, formally deployed against North Korea (but, in fact, against China). And, in the dispute between China and Japan, while it has called for peace and diplomacy, Washington has also made clear that, in the event of conflict, it considers itself obliged to intervene in favour of Japan, by virtue of the mutual defence treaty that both countries signed in 1960.

This kind of conflict between China and Japan should actually be resolved by the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), in which the United States is an observer. But ASEAN is irremediably split over China, with some countries like Cambodia so dependent on Chinese aid that they block any attempt to regulate China.

There are maritime disputes among nearly all countries in this part of the world: the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China, Brunei and Russia all have unresolved issues of sovereignty over islands. But it is unmistakable that China is ready to confront others. In its latest passport, China has printed a map of Asia in which it lays claim to practically all of the South China Sea. The Philippines has refused to stamp the passport and, on the eve of the Japanese elections, its minister of foreign affairs declared that his country “would very much welcome” a change of the Japanese constitution, allowing Tokyo once again to become a military power and this from a major victim of Japanese invasion during the Second World War.

All the signs point in the direction of this dispute over three barren islands becoming a major element in the realignment of geopolitics in the near future. When will humankind ever be free from the spectre of confrontation and war?


[1] Senior official with UNFPA and UNICEF.

Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.

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