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China-Japan Spat and Asia-Pacific region’s 21st Century

The September 7 collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coast guard patrol boat may have been quietly resolved through diplomatic channels at another time. From all signs, the tensions and respective hard positions are unlikely to fade away quickly. The strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific region appears to have changed rapidly. China has demonstrated its determination to dominate.

Earlier in July this year, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at the Hanoi ASEAN meeting that it was in the USA’s national interest to keep the sea lanes of South China Sea free for international shipping, which was apparently construed by the Chinese officials as instigating Vietnam against Beijing on the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.

The Chinese reaction was uncharacteristically rough compared to earlier years, but in step with more recent assertive positions. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi described Ms. Clinton’s remarks as an “attack on China”. Mr. Yang further reminded the countries of the region that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”.

Without further explanation from the Chinese side it is difficult to decode Mr. Yang’s statement. Did he mean that because China was a big country and, therefore, the smaller countries unnecessarily felt threatened? Or did he mean that China was a big, powerful country and the smaller countries had little choice but now-tow to China? Given the mood in China the latter may be the right answer.

Therefore, the collision between the Chinese trawler and the Japanese coast guard boats raise certain questions. The Japanese are yet to say, after enquiry, whether the collusion was accidental or deliberately caused by either of the two parties. It is well known that Chinese fishing trawlers have been chasing US ships in the South China Sea, international waters to all but seen by the Chinese as their sovereign territory. A Japanese submarine was buzzed by a Chinese helicopter in East China Sea. The Chinese trawler in this case may have had orders from their Beijing bosses to create a situation and see how it goes.

According to the Japanese version, since the Chinese trawler was in Japanese (controlled) waters around the Sunkaku Islands (known by the Chinese as Diaoyu) illegally, the Japanese wanted to board it to investigate. But captain of the Chinese trawler resisted resulting in the Japanese impounding the ship, its captain and crew.

The Japanese released the ship and the crew but detained the Captain to be tried under Japanese law. But Japan had to bend under Chinese pressure and, reportedly, by US intervention requested by the Chinese. China managed to save its face.

The Chinese reaction to the incident was unusually strong. It suspended all contacts with Japan at and above the provincial and ministerial levels. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi refused to meet their Japanese counterparts at the on-going UN General Assembly annual conference in New York, and unofficially held back shipment of rare earth mineral to Japan – a direly required input for Japan’s electronic and high technology industry. In parallel, China stepped up propaganda of its relations with North Korea encouraging Pyongyang to declare it will build a huge nuclear arsenal to counter the USA.

The recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region off China’s territorial waters over interconnected. Tensions began to escalate when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean frigate in March, this year, killing 47 South Korean Sea men. China refused to make a determination, leading to US-South Korea naval exercises in the international waters off China and North Korea. China has responded similarly.

The following lessons can be drawn from the foregoing that may chart the future of this region:

i)          By unofficially suspending shipment of rare earth minerals to Japan, China revealed that it was ready to intimidate opponents using economic instruments illegally (as per international laws, agreements and practice). It holds 97 percent of the world registered rare earth metals deposit, the other 3 percent being in the US unexploited. Though used in very small quantities, rare earth metals are used even in special military use alloys. The US imports rare earth minerals from China as do massy other countries.

ii)         China, however, took care to control nationalist sentiment demonstrations by its people. It cannot allow this anymore because it has implications for internal politics. The people cannot be allowed any longer to unite as a whole to ignite a social explosion against the mismanagement by the Communist Party and the government.

iii)        China is in a desperate hurry to establish its hegemony over the neighbourhood in the next decade, because their own and international assessment suggests China’s economic and social power will begin to decline thereafter. Simple military power will not suffice to help retain its position at the global high table because the US and the NATO will remain militarily for ahead for at least next 50 years.

iv)       China is trying to seduce Taiwan to join it to counter Japan’s control of the Senkaku islands since both sides have similar positions on certain territorial issues. Taiwan and mainland China are separated on political and ideological disagreements. Otherwise, they would be one country.

v)        Not very surprisingly though, Japan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which envisioned a China first foreign policy, has been shocked to see China’s strategy to dominate Japan. The recent Japanese concession to China in terms of releasing the Captain of the Chinese fishing trawler without trial has infuriated the Japanese public.

vi)       The Japanese Foreign Minister, Seji Maehara recently stated that the Senkaku islands were not disputed territory and was Japanese sovereign territory, contrary to Chinese claims based on their historical understanding that they were Chinese sovereign territory. At the moment, it appears the DPJ government in Japan may not concede any more to China especially since the Japanese political spectrum and the people oppose any such move.

A concurrent development involving South East Asia and the US has woven into these development. A top level ASEAN-US meeting in New York, attended by President Barak Obama on September 24, on the side lines of the UNGA, declared a new partnership welcoming the US in the affairs of the ASEAN which included the parameters of free navigation in the South China Seas and peaceful resolution of disputes. The US reentered the region after signing of the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation with the ASEAN in July 2009.  China responded to the New York meeting with a new initiative with ASEAN members, but still sticking to its bilateral approach.

China’s overbearing behavior with the smaller countries in the region appears to have revealed its true face, and weakened trust and interdependence. Beijing may count on Laos and Kampuchea. Thailand, the supposed to be jewel in China’s crown in South East Asia, is in political shambles. Myanmar (Burma), which used China and verce versa, is no longer very comfortable with Beijing. Increasingly, Beijing appears to be trying to command friendship with the threat of superior power.

A scenario is beginning to emerge that China is pushing its neighbours to form a coalition for protection against Beijing’s overbearance and hegemony. Military expenditure in the region is beginning to increase sharply, especially in naval procurements. This signifies protection of maritime territories.

China appears to be undergoing a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. From building a united front with the third world as Mao Zedong strategized, it is beginning to hegemonige the same constituency.  The last Chinese leader of far sight, Deng Xiaoping, suggested if territorial issues were intractable for this generation then leaves it to the next and even the following one, to come to amicable solutions.

The scenario ahead appears to be messy. Periodically, there are indications that China is extending its domination strategy as well as counterveiling strategy to South Asia, with India as the target. Having Pakistan in its control, it is trying to further complicate the Kashmir issue. It is also expending a lot of money, resources and political machinations in Nepal to counter India and extend its hegemony over Nepal. In Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is trying to play India and China against each other and enabling China to grow roots in Sri Lanka to counter India.

The bottom line is that China is fast losing trust of its smaller neighbours and trying to win allegiance by the threat of force. It has exposed itself as an 18th century power, trying to reenact in the 21st Century.

Of immediate concern, however, is the China-Japan interface. Japanese Prime Minister Nato Kan is determined to internationalize rising Chinese threat, and is also taking steps to strengthen Japan’s defence capabilities. This particular development has gone beyond the periodic clashes between the two countries when Japan usually stepped back. The mechanics of this development resulting in suspicion about China’s intentions could be contagious. Countries in and outside the region must now consider if China is about to destroy the slogan “21st Century is Asia-Pacific’s Century”.

China has exposed itself. Today’s leaders of China just do not have the acumen and sagacity of its earlier leaders. Mao Zedong could have easily overrun Hong Kong and Macao in 1951. But he kept them open as a window to the outside world. Mao and Deng claimed a lot of territories on historical premises. When it came to hard negotiations they kept to reality. Chinese leaders must understand that history is not the issue. The issue is one of reality. On historical basis India can claim territories from Kandahar to parts of Indonesia. This is not reality.

But if China continues to claim territories on vague historical claims, Asia is serious trouble.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own.

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