Growing tensions in the East and South China Seas have raised the risk of a “miscalculation” spilling over into a regional conflict. Amid confrontations between various Asian nations over disputed islands and territory, the power shift from West to East is seen having potentially explosive consequences.
The Diplomat’s Anthony Fensom spoke to Christian Wirth, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University Asia Institute, on the region’s maritime disputes involving China, Japan, South Korea and other nations and how they might be contained.
The East, South China and Yellow Seas are seeing a number of confrontations currently, sparking fears of a new “Cold War” in Asia. Is this an accurate description and how real is the threat of war?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
We associate the Cold War with a confrontation between two economically and socially isolated blocs, while now we have a huge country, China on the one side, and a de facto U.S.-led grouping on the other. But both are economically deeply interdependent. So if we’re talking about the conflict escalating beyond the crisis we’ve seen between Vietnam and China, or China and the Philippines for example, we would be talking about some involvement of the U.S. and its armed forces.
This could either be a clash such as during the 2001 Hainan Island incident, when a Chinese fighter jet hit a U.S. plane, or an instance where a U.S. ally gets into trouble with China and is seen as in need of being backed up, something which Washington is not really keen on getting involved in. But there might be some circumstances where Washington, for the sake of maintaining its reputation as a reliable ally and its power position in the Western Pacific, might not be able to stay out of such struggles.
The danger is that tensions are being ratcheted up, step by step. By having this overall tension heightened, there’s an increased likelihood of a small spark in one of the existing disputes igniting a bigger crisis. I’m not alarmist on certain clashes or the rise of China itself, but what we should be more concerned about is a general ignorance of increasing levels of fear. There seems to be a belief on all sides that as long as you keep up and increase deterrence, everything will be stable and safe, but that’s a risky calculation. To think that deterrence will decrease the likelihood of miscalculation and that nothing will happen, to me that is wishful thinking.
Given the economic importance of the region’s shipping lanes, how could tensions be reduced?
It is the very essence of great power status that the more powerful an actor is, the more it can influence the overall situation and keep tensions down. So the biggest responsibilities lie with the U.S., followed by China and Japan, which need to take action to improve the situation. I think apart from being aware of the subjective insecurities that the other side feels, it would be helpful, for instance, if the U.S. would refrain from stoking additional Chinese fears through military surveillance around Hainan and the South China Sea, not the least because the ensuing unhealthy dynamic inevitably empowers hardliners in Beijing.
In terms of the law of the sea, yes, it might be true that the U.S. stance is justified and the U.S. Navy has the right to navigate the seas; however, what is at stake is not just the interpretation of legal principles, but an overall political atmosphere, which allows those governments involved in stand-offs over maritime territories to move toward cooperation and compromise. It would, for instance, increase the basic level of tension even more if the Chinese started to conduct the same military surveillance that the U.S. does in the South China Sea around Hawaii and naval bases on the U.S. West Coast.
On the Chinese side, what’s concerning is in the general stance on the South China Sea. The Chinese government should work toward putting its sweeping, unclear territorial claim into the terms of the existing law of the seas in order to make it manageable and amenable to negotiations. The way it stands now, it’s an unclear claim, so it’s very difficult to get a handle on it and this causes more insecurity on the part of the weaker claimants.
At the same time, in Northeast Asia, the tensions between China and Japan are the responsibility of both sides, too. The Chinese side could help to improve the situation by not just keeping up its top-down level of engagement but also by making sure that non-governmental communication can continue even during diplomatic crises. Due to the Chinese system, we have seen a near-complete breakdown of governmental and non-governmental communication and exchange during the 2010 and 2012 controversies. Even Chinese academics were discouraged from traveling to Japan. In times of crisis, in particular, you should have academics continue talking to each other, and have student friendship exchanges proceed.
On the Japanese side, leaders could help the Chinese government to keep nationalism at bay by not provoking anti-Japanese sentiments among people in China (and South Korea) through controversial statements on wartime history. The current government in particular, could do a much better job in this respect. It would also be helpful for the Japanese side to acknowledge that there exists a maritime territorial dispute between China and Japan – that would certainly alleviate the worst of the tensions we’re seeing at the moment.
You have suggested the United States, China and Japan should work together to resolve these issues?
Yes, but there’s a conundrum here, as you have these deep historical animosities between China and Japan. The three governments need to have this situation be stable, but the question is what stability really means. Certainly, part of this stability is provided by the presence of the United States, which has shaped international relations throughout the postwar period. But that U.S. presence, if it remains unchanged, also freezes the current situation.
So, on the one hand, you have the U.S. military presence potentially preventing armed conflict, but on the other, by freezing the status quo, also complicating a resolution of conflicts through reconciliation. And that’s a troublesome issue.
We’re talking about very small steps: when you have, for instance, Japanese initiatives for improving regional cooperation, these regularly cause considerable anxiety, not just in Washington but also among conservative circles in Tokyo. Fears that the U.S.-Japan alliance might be in danger, that Japan might move too close to Asia, and that an Asian or regional bloc might emerge, are always around the corner. These fears should be acknowledged and alleviated. Even if Sino-Japanese relations were to significantly improve, I don’t see Japan becoming part of an Asian bloc or ever getting close to China.
Looking at the Japan-Russia dispute over the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands, will this ever be resolved?
Unlike in 1956 when the Soviet Union and Japan were close to implementing an agreement, the U.S. is not opposed any more, if Russia and Japan were to find a compromise. But what’s still the same is that you have this East-West dividing line that cuts across the disputed islands. Whereas it was the Cold War split that inhibited a resolution in the past, negotiations are now complicated by the fact that Japan has to make a strong stance against Russia with regard to Ukraine, but that’s not everything.
In Japan, the conviction that ultimately all islands should be returned seems to persist. You could see that in the 2000-01 negotiations. Then, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the Japanese side the two smaller islands Shikotan and Habomai. The Japanese side, however, has consistently tried to come to an agreement where it gets more than two islands – eventually all four. You’ve also had over recent years Japanese leaders like Taro Aso suggest there could be a compromise where Japan gets three islands. But such proposals, even when made by powerful rightwing politicians like Aso, caused a considerable backlash and had to be abandoned.
That’s why I’m pessimistic about any significant change as there seems to be reluctance on the part of Japan to compromise. What will be necessary is to acknowledge that Japan lost the war and that, therefore, it can’t claim all four islands back. That seems to be really difficult to do.
How about the dispute between Japan and South Korea over the island of Takeshima/Dokdo?
I don’t see that being resolved anytime soon either. The only way to handle the dispute is to keep it low profile. While the Koreans will never give the islets up, Takeshima did not mean that much for Japan until 2005. Until rather recently, most people were not even aware that the dispute existed. It would be wisest for the Japanese side to shelve it and keep it away from the public sphere.
How might the current disputes impact on important economic ties?
The dispute between South Korea and Japan is quite unlikely to escalate that much. But during the crises of 2010 and 2012 between Japan and China, there were implications – we had anti-Japan riots and boycotts in China. Even though these were contained and/or co-opted by the Chinese government, there would be far greater negative consequences for economic ties if tensions were to increase. When nationalist currents and emotions run high, there’s not much space left for rational calculations about economic costs and benefits.
China and Japan are Australia’s top two trading partners, making any dispute between them a lose-lose situation for Australia. How might the Australian government approach such disputes?
To safeguard Australia’s economic and political interests, it would be very wise for Canberra to proceed on a path similar to the one pursued in the 90s, when Australia was leading in the creation of APEC and other regional bodies…having this enmeshment of not just China but all the regional powers, that’s one way to create stability and it would be quite a good way for Australia to play a leadership role.
There’s nothing to be lost by doing that, as opposed to Australia joining one side of a deepening rift or conflict, which would potentially be costly on the economic side and defense side. You might know where you belong to and have your allies, but in a confrontation among great powers, these allies don’t really provide you with sustainable economic growth and real stability.
All of China’s rivals deny having a “containment” policy toward China. How do you see the situation?
Containment as it happened during the Cold War was different to what we’re seeing now – there’s no real or de facto containment, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the Chinese view on the current security environment. When leading think tank experts tell you: “Look there’s fires all around us, what are we supposed to do?”, then, that is not a good sign.
I think that’s the real danger – when you have the leadership of a country feeling encircled, isolated, that’s where rationality calculations change. You will see more assertiveness, aggressiveness even. Leaders will be prone to miscalculations because they can’t see the overall situation.
One example is the 1969 conflict between China and the Soviet Union where the Chinese leadership was extremely concerned and thought a nuclear attack by the U.S.S.R. was imminent and left Beijing for the bunkers. Of course that’s an extreme case during the Cold War, of a China not really connected to the outside world. But that’s the danger of what I would call “ideational isolation,” and that’s what we should try to prevent.
How do you see the outlook for these maritime disputes over the next five to 10 years?
I’m rather pessimistic – I think these maritime disputes will continue to be big issues. I don’t think it’s possible to really shelve them, especially not in the East China and South China Seas. This is because the political situation has changed. The disputes are now out in the public sphere and foreign ministries are no longer in control of managing them.
We need to do more than just engage in crisis diplomacy. There might be instances where some of the claimants might reach agreements on joint development, but overall I think maritime disputes will be of great concern. The question then is what else do we have – is there going to be anything to balance these negative dynamics with?
Then, there are two wildcards. One is China’s economic situation. If that changes, what’s going to happen to the “power shift” and how would a bigger economic crisis, such as commonly occur, affect China’s political stability and foreign policy?
The other is North Korea, because we’re not sure how stable that regime really is and what the new leadership might do next. We can, for instance, see negotiations between Japan and North Korea on the abduction issue, which is quite interesting.
All of the relationships among Northeast Asian governments, if they change, might alter the dynamic at least in the sub-region. While that makes the future of East Asia more uncertain, it also offers great opportunities if handled pragmatically.