World

Analysis: East China Sea’s tiny islands, where bigger battle is fought

By J Brooks Spector 27 November 2013

Add them all up and they may just possibly equal the footprint of Central Park in New York City, and they are virtually invisible on most maps of the region. But the fight isn’t really over this rather forlorn collection of rocky pinpricks poking through the surface of the East China Sea – between Japan and China. Inevitably, perhaps, there seems to be some petroleum under the seabed near by, there’s lots of fishing in the waters thereabouts, and commercial shipping passes through the sea-lanes in the area. But perhaps most important of all, demonstrating military control on, below and above the surface of these islets and the expanses of water beyond them is key to leveraging a much larger strategic impact on the region – between the two Koreas, China and Japan. And now, as in much of the last century or more, China and Japan are facing off against each other. What will come out of that in the future, no one knows yet. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

For much of the latter half of the 19th century and then on into the first half of the 20th, Japan was a new, rising power in East Asia. By contrast, China continued to slip; surrendering one piece of turf after another to one nation after another – including Japan – until China’s national sovereignty had virtually slipped from its grasp. After Japan’s thorough defeat in World War II and consequent forced retreat from mainland Asia, Japan effectively retired behind its US defence perimeter, licked its wounds, and rebuilt its industrial and commercial base. By the 1980s it seemed it would inevitably own the world in a just a few more months – that was until it frittered away a serious share of its economic potential and international impact during two “lost” decades of near-zero growth.

In a somewhat different way, China also effectively retreated inward. There was the civil war that happened after the Second World War, there was the creation of its communist society that entangled itself in the Cultural Revolution. That was until Deng Xiaoping’s rallying cry – “to be rich is wonderful” – inverted Mao Zedong’s revolutionary rhetoric and unleashed the commercial energies of over a billion people. The end product of that great shift produced a China whose economic heft now washes across the globe.

Now, in the early years of the 21st century, this resurgent China and an increasingly nervous Japan with its own growing nationalist tendencies are vying for strategic advantage in the seas between them – even as their two economies are deeply and increasingly interwoven. At its heart, Japan seems keen to achieve a kind of stable condominium for the region. On the other hand, China seems to be considering its options to achieve an ever-growing sphere of economic and political influence. This includes the assertion of national sovereignty over various disputed – but rather strategic – islets, as well as an increasingly impressive showing of its military capabilities, thousands of miles from its mainland.

As the New York Times commented the other day regarding China’s announcement this past weekend, “China’s decision to impose a new air defence zone over a wide swath of the East China Sea is at odds with its claim to want a peaceful resolution to territorial disputes over a group of islands there. The announcement is a highly provocative move that has increased tensions and could make direct conflict with Japan more likely.”

The Chinese declaration was issued by the spokesman of the Ministry of National Defence, Col. Yang Yujun said, “China’s armed forces will take defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in identification or refuse to follow orders. The objective is to defend national sovereignty and territorial and air security, as well as to maintain orderly aviation,” said Colonel’s statement on his ministry’s website. Asian airlines quickly fell in step, saying that yes, of course, they would inform China of their flight plans before entering the disputed airspace. Not surprisingly, the US and Japanese militaries are less interested in doing such a thing.

Specifically, what the Chinese have done is draw a new line in the sand (er, water) significantly to the east of the old, unofficial, customary one set out previously.

In doing this, the Chinese are asserting a new right to require all aircraft entering this zone to declare and identify themselves to the Chinese security establishment – that is, when they are entering what the Chinese are calling their Air Defence Identification Zone. They have also asserted the right to take military action against aircraft that do not do so.

Historically, the Japanese have called these islands the Senkakus, while the Chinese have named them the Diaoyu Islands. To make things just a touch more complicated, while the islands have been administered by Japan for at least a hundred years, they are also claimed by Taiwan in its guise as inheritor of the old Nationalist Chinese government’s territorial claims. Now nobody really lives on these bits of rock, save for an occasional fisherman stopping off for a quick walk on dry land, and a whole lot of sea birds, but it is the economic and strategic potential that really matters here. Every once in a while, a Japanese Air Self-Defence Force aircraft has flown over these islands to offer a modest, low-level assertion of territorial control, just in case anybody had a different idea.

A generation earlier, there was rather less fuss over these rocks. But now, however, the two nations seem poised to begin a head-bumping competition over these sea bird sanctuaries – and what they may mean for larger strategic circumstances. On the one hand, there is a Japan led by its conservative, and assertively nationalist leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe is the scion of a long time politically powerful family and now that he has become Japan’s current prime minister, he has been increasingly eager to build a tougher defensive posture – and to instill rather more pride in the nation’s international position – particularly in defence and security terms.

In speaking about this new, unexpected, Chinese announcement, Abe told reporters over the weekend, “Concerning the Senkaku islands, Senkaku is an inherent part of the territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based upon international law, and the islands are under the valid control of Japan. However the invasion by Chinese government vessels in our territorial waters are continuing, to our regret…. Japan would not make a concession on our territorial sovereignty,” but that “having said so, we do not intend to escalate this issue any further.” Perhaps in case anyone expected an actual war to break out over these sea bird nesting spots.

On the other side of course, there is that large, powerful Chinese dynamo of a continental civilisation with its own growing military power, similarly under new management – its new president, Xi Jinping. Now equipped with a “new” aircraft carrier (actually a thoroughly rebuilt ex-Soviet one, soon to be equipped with a full complement of Chinese-designed carrier strike aircraft), China’s leadership is eager to inject its country onto the larger strategic landscape for the long haul. Just coincidentally, that aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, departed its base for its first-ever, open water sea trials in the South China Sea on Tuesday. Given the coincidence of its sailing around the same time as the Chinese announcement, this mission is certain to attract very close scrutiny.

Speaking about this face-off between the two major Asian powers, the Times went on to observe, “For more than a year, China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, have been increasingly confrontational over the issue. Japan’s hypernationalist government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has most often been the provocateur, but China has contributed to the instability by deploying Chinese coast guard ships and aircraft to the area to challenge Japan’s claims. The air defence zone goes even further in contesting Japan’s control by aggressively asserting China’s reach in the region. It significantly complicates efforts by the United States to develop a relationship with China under President Xi Jinping. But it is China’s behavior that is most disturbing right now, especially since officials have left open the possibility of more air defence zones in the future…. It is unclear if China really intends to respond militarily to Japanese or other planes flying through the zone, but the chance of miscalculation or error grows as the dispute escalates.” The key point is that such unilateral assertions of a kind of territorial authority clearly increase the possibility of confusion and confrontation – and the kind of confrontation that can become a provocation for further confrontation up the escalatory ladder, unsettling nearly everyone.

A while back China also began issuing new passports that contained a map of China embossed on its pages – but with these disputed islands, as well as numerous other bits of territory, clearly identified as Chinese territory. In addition to those Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, these included the Paracels and Spratleys, two other island groups in the South China Sea that just happen to be claimed by five Southeast Asian nations as well. Inevitably, perhaps, too, in the waters around those islands there are, possibilities of oil and natural gas and significant amounts of commercial fishing – along with much shipping transiting those waters.

For their part, the Japanese also have two other major territorial disputes pending. The first of these is with a very small island group between it and Korea – Takeshima/Takdo – as well as a final major territorial dispute left over from World War II. The Southern Kuriles (or the Northern Territories as the Japanese term them) were seized by the then-Soviet Union right at the end of the Second World War. The two nations have argued continuously ever since over whether these islands were part of the Kuriles island chain that was ceded to the USSR as a reward for its entrance into the Pacific side of the war, several months after Germany’s defeat in Europe.

Concurrently, the new-style Chinese passport has also, predictably, provoked significant amounts of public outrage from its various neighbours. Much of the territories so delineated – although not yet its former satrapies in Southeast Asia, or its former Siberian lands and the Korean Peninsula – equate to areas controlled by imperial China in its  halcyon days of the Ming and Qing dynasties – from the seventeenth century onward. This was before the country had been thoroughly humiliated by the Japanese, Russians, British, French, and Germans in the 19th century.

Meanwhile, in the latest ratchet upward over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, two long-range American bombers carried out what Pentagon officials described on Tuesday as a routine training mission through international air space, despite this new claim by China that this area was within its “air defence identification zone.” US defence officials said two B-52s carried out a mission planned well in advance of China’s weekend announcement. Regardless of this new Chinese announcement, however, the United States would continue to assert its right to fly in what it firmly regards as international air space.

Just after the Chinese announcement about its “East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone,” US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a statement saying, “We view this development as a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region. This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” Hagel’s statement went on to say, “this announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region” and other officials pointed to Hagel’s statement to explain that the flights by the two B-52 bombers were underscoring the American commitment to preserve traditional rules of international air space.

Hagel’s statement also noted that the United States had conveyed “concerns to China through diplomatic and military channels, and we are in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region, including Japan.” His statement concluded that the US remains “steadfast in our commitments to our allies and partners. The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.” The US Defence secretary obviously wasn’t about to use the Chinese name for these islands, it would seem.

One other effect of this Chinese decision, however, is to throw a shadow over the planning for Vice President Joseph Biden’s upcoming China trip. Moreover, this, in turn, brings into question about what, precisely, Xi Jinping meant when he said earlier in the year he was hoping to achieve a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US.

In analysing Chinese responses to these statements from the US, the Economist noted, “State-run Chinese media have, like the government, dismissed foreign complaints about the move. They have also emphasised the establishment by many other states of similar air-defence zones. According to Xing Hongbo, a Chinese expert on military law who was quoted by the China News Service, more than 20 countries, including America, Canada, Australia and Japan, have set up similar zones, extending beyond their sovereign airspace. Fu Xiaodong, another military and legal expert cited in the same article, said America was ‘exercising double standards’. ‘There is no reason for Washington to blame another country for doing the same as it has done.’ ”

Looking ahead, MIT Japan studies expert Richard Samuels argued that of the big tasks confronting the big powers, “finding the right distance between the U.S. and China is the most important strategic choice facing Japan today.” Nevertheless, veteran Japanese security analyst Narushige Michishita and co-author, Peter van der Hoest caution, “The biggest strategic challenge for policymakers in the Asia-Pacific is the peaceful integration of China into the international order…. if history serves as a guide for the future, ascendance of new great powers tends to create tension, rivalry, and even war. Looking for historical analogies, some China watchers argue that with China’s rise the contours of a new cold war are beginning to take form.” But they add it is unlikely the competition will echo in any precise way the Cold War period between the US and the USSR. What does seem certain is that the US, Japan and the other nations of the region will continue to spend a great deal of time figuring out creative ways to accommodate – and counterbalance – this Chinese drive for that “place in the sun” in East Asia (to borrow the phrase applied to Germany at the beginning of the 20th century) and throughout the greater Pacific Basin. DM

Read more:

  • U.S. Flies B-52s Into China’s Expanded Air Defence Zone in the New York Times;
  • China’s Coercive Play in the New York Times;
  • China Claims Air Rights Over Disputed Islands in the New York Times;
  • Japan’s Leader Gives No Ground in Islands Dispute in the New York Times;
  • Japan Rejects China’s Claim to Air Rights Over Islands in the New York Times;
  • East China Sea dispute – Troubled skies over troubled waters in the Economist;
  • China’s aircraft carrier heads to South China Sea in the Washington Post;
  • China air defence zone points to the long game in the Washington Post;
  • Japan, China in war of words over airspace in the Washington Post;
  • Clash of National Identities: China, Japan, and the East China Sea Territorial Dispute at Wilson Center;
  • China’s bid to control Senkaku airspace ‘violates law’ – Tokyo cries foul over China’s declaration of air defence zone in the Japan Times;
  • Q&A: What are China and Japan arguing over? In the Financial Times;
  • Analysis: Risk of conflict in East China Sea at the BBC;
  • Japan’s Shifting Strategic Discourse (Richard Samuels article) at the MIT website;
  • Another Cold War in Asia? An article by Narushige Michishita and others at the Asian Forum.org.

Photo: A group of disputed islands, Uotsuri island (top), Minamikojima (bottom) and Kitakojima, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is seen in the East China Sea, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 2012. Japan and ally the United States sharply criticized China’s move to impose new rules on airspace over islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with Tokyo, warning of an escalation into the “unexpected” if Beijing enforces the rules. (REUTERS/Kyodo)

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