Monday, September 24, 2012

“Rising Risk in the East China Sea”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Rising Risk in the East China Sea”
September 24, 2012

The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo was the match that ignited the conflagration known as World War I. The War decimated a continent, killed an estimated 16 million, and the terms of its peace led directly to World War II, twenty-one years later. But the assassination was only the match; the tinder had been laid over the decade leading to 1914.

Writing in the Financial Times, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor of the paper, writes of the 1911 Agadir crisis, when the Kaiser sent a warship to Morocco to prevent French annexation. The purpose, he suggests, was to test France’s entente with the British. It was one of a series of seemingly small instances that led up to the fatal shooting in Bosnia three years later.

It is far too early to suggest that the dispute between China and Japan augurs a similar devastation; though it is probably fair to say that the bickering is one means of testing the security treaty obligating the United States to come to the defense of Japan in case of attack. On September 18, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta informed Chinese National Defense Minister Liang Guanglie that the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China) would be considered a part of Japan for purposes of the treaty. Nevertheless, Washington has also maintained its stance that it would not take sides in the territorial dispute over the islands – a position it has held for several decades.

The feud over the islands has resonated across China and Japan, putting at risk $340 billion worth of trade between the two nations. Thousands of Chinese attacked Japanese-owned shops and factories in China. The Japanese Embassy in Beijing was the recipient of paint bombs. An estimated 800 Japanese demonstrators in Tokyo, organized by the nationalist group Ganbare Nippon (go for it, Japan,) marched on the Chinese Embassy.

The islands in dispute by themselves have little, if any, economic value, but they lie in fishing waters of the East China Sea, which are critical in terms of defending shipping lines in the area. They are also potentially home to mineral rights. They lie about 100 miles northeast of Taiwan. They have been under Japanese dominance since the end of World War II. Recently the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from their private owners. War over those islands seems remote. After the devastation of World War II, most Japanese show little interest in a nationalist call to arms. However, the weekend’s Financial Times reported that a poll conducted by the Nikkei newspaper last month indicated that “48% of the respondents thought Japan should react firmly to Chinese moves on the Senkaku.”

Memories last long in the region, and December 13 will mark the 75th anniversary of one of the most notorious atrocities of all time – the Rape of Nanking. While estimates vary as to how many were killed at that time, it is generally conceded that about 200,000 died, many of them women and children. To put the number in perspective, the population of Nanking, the former capital of the Republic of China, was about 600,000. Manchuria was invaded in1931 by the Japanese, and China’s pleas to the U.S. and the League of Nations, at the time, went unanswered.

Ironically, the very presence of the U.S. in Asian waters has served to allow the region to expand economically, with China the single largest beneficiary. Yet, according to Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, writing in the September-October edition of Foreign Affairs, China sees the United States as a less than benevolent guardian of the region. They note that the American military is deployed around their periphery and that they “maintain a wide network of defense relations with China’s neighbors.” Additionally, they point out that Chinese analysts see their country “as heir to an agrarian, eastern strategic tradition that is pacifist, defense-minded, non-expansionist and ethical.” In contrast, they perceive the U.S. has being “militaristic, offense-minded, expansionist and selfish.” The authors suggest that calls for human rights and democracy in China are simply subtle ways of weakening the power of China’s leaders.

Regardless of how the Chinese may view themselves, relations with other neighbors in the South China Sea, such as South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam have proved edgy over resource-rich waters. The Economist, back in April ran a special edition, “The Dragon’s New Teeth.” The authors quoted an editorial in the Chinese state-run Global Times: “If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannons.” That is not what I would call a policy of pacifism, non-expansionist and ethical.

On June 21st, China’s State Council approved the establishment of a new prefecture, which it named Sansha with headquarters on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. This is a group of islands over which Vietnam claims sovereignty. The next day China’s Central Ministry announced it would deploy a garrison of soldiers to guard the islands. And now, according to Virginia Democratic Senator James Webb writing in the Wall Street Journal a month ago, “China has begun offering oil exploration rights in locations recognized by the international community as within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.” There have been similar differences with the Philippines, for example, with China preempting mineral rights in the Scarborough shoals.

It is far too early to suggest that China will resort to military action. According to most sources, they are not yet ready. They do have the largest standing army in the world (ten times that of Japan.) But their number of aircraft is roughly 30% of ours, while their navy, in terms of total number of ships, is about 40% of ours. Our defense budget is four times that of China’s, but theirs is growing, while ours will likely be shrinking, at least as a percent of GDP. The Chinese, for example, have only one aircraft carrier, the ‘Varyag’ which is a retrofitted Ukrainian carrier. However, the first Chinese built carrier is expected to be christened in 2015. The U.S., in comparison, has five carriers. The addition of more Chinese-built carriers, though, as the article in the Economist makes clear, “would be an unmistakable declaration of an ambition eventually to project power far from home.”

In terms of territorial disputes, the United States has taken the position that it will not interfere, even though defense treaties might imply otherwise. Senator Webb worries about this historic policy of taking no sides. It has, he writes, “emboldened China.” “Washington has by default become an enabler of China’s more aggressive acts.”

It would be nice to believe that people of all countries, no matter their differences, could live peacefully. But, unfortunately, that is not the lesson from history, and it is not the message of the current day. Man has never shown an ability to live peacefully. Contentions are driven by culture, religion, geography and economics. The best means for the U.S. to help keep the peace is to stay strong. Senator Webb, in the same article cited earlier, wrote: “History teaches that when unilateral acts of aggression go unanswered, the bad news never gets better.” As mentioned above, it was China’s call for help in the 1930s that went unanswered. Better than most, they understand the consequences of the failure of the international community to respond. And the memories of a December 13th tragedy seventy-five years ago are unlikely to disappear unacknowledged.

In terms of trade, in my opinion, we do ourselves harm when we raise the subject of currency manipulation and when talk turns to recriminations and trade wars. First, the United States has been guilty as any country recently in terms of manipulating its currency and second, the erection of trade barriers serves no one. Trade wars encourage an unhealthy increase in nationalism, one of the causes of both World Wars. In the early 1930s, they deepened and prolonged the Depression.

President Obama was right to “pivot” towards Asia. The region is combustible. Lines are being drawn. Last November, at a Moscow meeting with Wen Jiabao, Vladimir Putin slammed “arrogant world powers.” This past June he met in Beijing with China’s incoming President Xi Jinping, Mr. Putin emphasized the two countries military alliances, pointing to last April’s joint naval training exercises. At the same time, the United States has been trying to strengthen its ties with India, which is a work-in-progress. India has been a leader in the non-aligned movement, with an official policy of being “strategically autonomous.” Nevertheless, disputes along China’s western borders and rising tensions with Pakistan may cause India to seek a partner. Raising the stakes for the rest of the world, India, Pakistan, China, Russia and the U.S. are all nuclear powers.

Despite wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Asian region has been relatively peaceful for the past sixty-seven years – in part because of the presence of the United States Navy. It is not a surprise that with China’s growing prosperity she would want to increase her sphere of influence. By itself, that is not necessarily bad, but it means that the dynamics in the region are changing. A big difference between Asia in the second decade of the 21st Century and Europe in the second decade of the 20th Century has been the hegemony of the United States, which has helped preserve the peace. It appears that those relationships are now changing. The best chance for peace, though, is to keep our military strong.

The Middle East, with the Iraq-Iran dispute in the forefront, may be the most immediate concern, but we cannot afford to be too casual as to what is happening in the East China Sea, with China and Japan disputing a few islands populated mostly with goats. Minor, seemingly unimportant disputes can have meaningful consequences, as diplomats discovered in Europe a century ago.

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