South China Sea Conundrum

One of the truths of human history is that mankind has a tendency to go to war for some pretty stupid reasons; my personal favorite was the 17th century's War of Jenkins' Ear, though in the 19th century the United States and Canada nearly went to war over a pig, which probably would have trumped the unfortunate Mr. Jenkins as a casus belli.  Today the latest developing global flashpoint is a collection of rocks and barren islets scattered across the South China Sea.  Territorial disputes in this part of the world are nothing new, China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines all have overlapping claims to the tiny islands peppered across this shallow body of water.  But in the past few months the usual diplomatic squabbling over the South China Sea has taken on a darker tone thanks to some aggressive posturing on the part of China, some foreign policy statements from the United States and an at-sea accident involving Chinese and Japanese ships.

Let's start with that last point first.  In early September, two Japanese naval patrol vessels spotted a Chinese fishing boat in the vicinity of a collection of islands the Japanese call Senkaku, the Chinese call Diaoyutai and both countries claim as their own (for a very detailed history of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, click here).  The Japanese challenged the Chinese vessel for trespassing in their territorial waters and in the ensuing melee, the Chinese boat collided with one of the Japanese ships.  The Japanese promptly boarded the Chinese ship, detained the crew and brought them back to Japan.  They released the crew, but threatened to criminally charge the Chinese captain for damaging their ship.  As you can imagine, this sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries, with angry protests staged by citizens in each against the other.  It seemed late last week like the situation was being defused when the Japanese finally released the Chinese captain without charges, but then Japan upped the ante again by insisting that China pay for the damage done to the Japanese patrol boat.

Buoyed by their booming economy, China has increasingly seen itself as a major player on the world stage.  In their neighborhood, this has resulted in China adopting a foreign policy posture towards their neighbors that is increasingly aggressive in a subtle sort of way.  This past summer, China declared the South China Sea to be an area of “core interest”; it's a term that China has previously used to refer to Tibet, Xinjiang (home to their Uyghur ethnic minority) and Taiwan – all places that China regards as vital to their national security interests, and where they intend to act in these self-defined interests, despite what the rest of the world thinks.  As an area of “core interest”, China believes that they not only have a claim to the bits of territory that constitute the tiny islands spread across the sea, as well as access to the oil and natural gas deposits in the seabed surrounding them, but also the right to decide who can and cannot pass through the waters of the South China Sea.

Here China has butted up against a seldom-discussed yet core bit of American foreign policy for the past six decades or so – universal freedom of the seas, which basically means that any nation has the right to peacefully sail through bodies of water generally regarded as “international” like the South China Sea.  During World War II, the United States built up a massive navy to bring the war to the doorstep of Imperial Japan; since the end of the war, the US has maintained that mighty navy (and the rationale for it) in large part by becoming the de facto enforcer of the “freedom of the seas” ideal.  After China issued their core interests declaration the US State Dept. issued their own declaration reiterating the United States belief in the principle of freedom of the seas and in the South China Sea's status as an international body of water. 

It's tempting to dismiss both the dueling declarations and the at-sea collision as the kind of diplomatic cat-fighting that bubbles up and just as quickly fades away around the globe on a regular basis.  The South China Sea has served as the flashpoint for conflict in any number of espionage thrillers, yet actual conflict has never erupted here, aside from the occasional skirmish, the most serious of which, in the mid-1980s between China and Vietnam left nearly 100 Vietnamese sailors dead.  But the China of 2010  is much different than the China of 1980s, the modern version is much more powerful and much more eager to find ways of projecting that power to the world, both through peaceful extravaganzas like the Beijing Olympics and not-so-peaceful ones, like the ongoing build-up of the People's Liberation Army Navy (yes, that is the official name of China's navy).  In a worrying challenge to the dominance of the US Navy, China has been openly discussing the development of their anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), a rocket that can be fired from bases deep within China and strike, and sink, ships hundreds of miles at-sea.  It's also worth noting here that in their recent spat with Japan, China played the “resource card”, halting sales of so-called rare earth metals to Japan.  These rare earth metals, like lanthanum, in addition to serving as the answer to questions on high school chemistry exams, are absolutely vital in the manufacture of micro-electronic devices (like your smart phone, laptop, etc.); and China currently is the world's largest supplier of rare earths.

There seems to be a split in perceptions on what effect a more aggressive China looking to expand their sphere of influence will have on the region.  There is a belief that it will drive countries like Japan and Vietnam into having closer relations with the United States, especially when it comes to areas of defense and military cooperation.  This would mark a real turn around in US-Japan relations – even though the two countries remain close allies, in recent years the Japanese have become more and more reluctant to host large US military bases, particularly on the island of Okinawa.  But, the theory goes, given a choice between the US and China, Japan would put up with a continued large US military presence in their country in return for the security it brings.  However, other indications from the region are that China's neighbors aren't necessarily counting on the United States to continue in the role of protector of the freedom of the seas, at least as far as the South China Sea is concerned; Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia have all recently begun building up their navies in response to China's increase in forces.  Perhaps it is a feeling that the United States has been to distracted by the decade-long Global War on Terror to properly focus on the Pacific Rim, or a belief that the US would be reluctant to engage in an actual conflict with their biggest creditor, but there does seem to be a belief that the Chinese, rather than the American, navy will soon be the force to deal with in the region. 

That leaves us with two contradictory ideas: that the nations of the Pacific Rim either see the United States as the “big brother” that will protect them from the new neighborhood bully, or that America can't be counted on to stand up to China and that every country better take steps to protect their interests.  Whichever perception turns out to be correct both point to a tense and uncertain future in the Pacific. 

China, Development, Diplomacy, History, Japan, US Foreign Policy