Sunday, September 16, 2012

Islands in the South China Sea

Sep 13, 2012

Truth the first casualty in tussles over islands

By ian buruma

THEY don't look like much, those few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea between Okinawa and Taiwan, and a couple of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan, inhabited by a few token fishermen and some South Korean Coast Guard officials. The former, called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, are claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan; the latter, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea, are claimed by South Korea and Japan.

These tiny outcroppings have little material value, and yet the dispute over their ownership has led to a major international dust-up. Ambassadors have been recalled. Massive anti-Japanese demonstrations have been held all over China, causing damage to Japanese people and properties. Threats fly back and forth between Tokyo and Seoul. There has even been talk of military action.

The historical facts actually appear quite simple. Japan grabbed the islands as part of its empire-building project after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and the annexation of Korea in 1905. Prior sovereignty is unclear; there were fishermen from Japan in Takeshima/Dokdo, and some awareness of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in imperial China. But no formal claims were made by any state.

Things became more complicated after World War II. Japan was supposed to return its colonial possessions, but the United States took over the Senkaku Islands along with Okinawa, before returning both to Japan in 1972. The Koreans, still enraged at Japan for almost a half-century of colonisation, took the Dokdo Islands without worrying about the move's legality.

Given the brutality of the Japanese occupations of Korea and China, one is naturally inclined to sympathise with Japan's former victims. The fiery emotions inspired by this dispute - some Koreans even mutilated themselves in protest against Japan - suggest that the wounds of the Japanese war in Asia are still fresh. Indeed, South Korean President Lee

Myung Bak has used the occasion to demand a formal apology for the war from the Japanese emperor, and financial compensation for Korean women who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels during the war.

Unfortunately, the Japanese government, despite much circumstantial and even documentary evidence supplied by Japanese historians, now chooses to deny the wartime regime's responsibility for this ghastly project. Not surprisingly, that stance has further inflamed Korean emotions.

And yet it would be too simple to ascribe the current dispute entirely to the open wounds of the last world war. Nationalist feelings, deliberately stirred up in China, South Korea and Japan, are linked to recent history, to be sure, but the politics behind them is different in each country. Since the press in all three countries is almost autistic in its refusal to reflect anything but the "national" point of view, these politics are never properly explained.

The communist government in China can no longer derive any legitimacy from Marxist, let alone Maoist, ideology. China is an authoritarian capitalist country, open for business with other capitalist countries (including deep economic relations with Japan). Since the 1990s, therefore, nationalism has replaced communism as the justification for the one-party state, which requires stirring up anti-Western - and above all, anti-Japanese - sentiment. This is never difficult in China, given the painful past, and it usefully deflects public attention from the failings and frustrations of living in a dictatorship.

In South Korea, one of the most painful legacies of the Japanese colonial period stems from the Korean elite's widespread collaboration at the time. Their offspring still play an important part in conservative politics in the country, which is why Korean leftists periodically call for purges and retribution. President Lee is a conservative, and relatively pro-Japanese. As a result, the Japanese view his recent demands for apologies, money and recognition of South Korean sovereignty over the islands in the Sea of Japan as a kind of betrayal. But, precisely because Mr Lee is regarded as a pro-Japanese conservative, he needs to burnish his nationalist credentials. He cannot afford to be tainted with collaboration. His political opponents are not the Japanese, but the Korean left.

The use of the war to stoke anti-Japanese feelings in China and Korea is annoying to the Japanese, and triggers defensive reactions. But Japanese nationalism is also fed by anxieties and frustrations - specifically, fear of rising Chinese power and Japan's total dependency on the US for its national security.

Japanese conservatives view their country's post-war pacifist Constitution, written by Americans in 1946, as a humiliating assault on Japanese sovereignty. Now that China is testing its growing power by claiming territories, not just in the East China Sea but also in the South China Sea, Japanese nationalists insist that Japan must act as a big power and be seen as a serious player, fully prepared to defend its sovereignty, even over insignificant rocks.

China, South Korea and Japan, whose economic interests are closely entwined, have every reason to avoid a serious conflict. And yet all three are doing their best to bring one about. For entirely domestic reasons, each country is manipulating the history of a devastating war, triggering passions that can only cause more damage. Politicians, commentators, activists and journalists in each country are talking endlessly about the past. But they are manipulating memories for political ends. The last thing that interests any of them is the truth.

Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College in the United States.


South China Sea: Not Just About “Free Navigation”


Denny Roy, Senior Research Fellow at the East-West Center, explains that “China is trying to implement a might-makes-right order, while the United States is trying to ensure that smaller countries do not get steamrolled. This is the real issue, and US officials should make it clear.”

The South China Sea territorial dispute increasingly looks like a point of strategic friction between the United States and China after a nasty exchange between the two governments earlier this month. The US Department of State criticized China for its plan to base a new military garrison in the Paracel Islands, saying this would increase international tensions. Beijing shot back that the United States should mind its own business. Many observers wonder why Washington and Beijing are allowing a new irritant to emerge in the incalculably important US-China relationship. Unfortunately, there is widespread misunderstanding about the US rationale for America’s diplomatic intervention in a territorial dispute to which the United States is not a party. Although US officials have named several specific US concerns about China’s policies and activities in the South China Sea, the US concern most widely understood and repeated is the potential threat to “freedom of navigation”: the PRC might be moving toward imposing restrictions on foreign ships sailing in the South China Sea. This, however, is not the real issue. It is really about bullying.

To be sure, the United States is a strong proponent of freedom of navigation in international waters. This stance reflects not only America’s commitment to the general principle of liberty but also the interests of a trading nation with the world’s most capable navy. There should be no doubt that if freedom of navigation was in jeopardy in the South China Sea, the United States would spring to its defense. At present, however, freedom of navigation is not at issue.

The Chinese say they do not interfere with international navigation in the South China Sea and do not intend to in the future. Their position has some merit. China has a particular beef with surveillance by US ships and aircraft near the Chinese coast. This has resulted in Chinese harassment, with several incidents reported in the press. The UN Law of the Sea Treaty allows for spying in the region between a country’s internal waters limit—12 nautical miles—and its exclusive economic zone limit which is usually 200 nm.

The Chinese argue that spying is not “innocent passage” and should not be allowed within the EEZ. It is not an unreasonable argument. So this situation has resulted in some interference with the “free navigation” of the US Navy, but this is a very limited and special case. The other circumstance in which Chinese vessels have interfered with non-Chinese ships is when the latter are engaged in activities that involve taking resources— fishing or preparing to drill for hydrocarbons—or when foreigners are attempting to arrest Chinese fishermen. These, as well, are special cases. Otherwise, the Chinese have not interfered with the passage of cargo ships of any flag or of US Navy vessels passing through the waterway.

Consequently, the Chinese assert that the freedom of navigation argument is bogus, and the assertion is persuasive to many neutral onlookers. From here the Chinese charge that the Americans are using freedom of the seas as a pretext to extend the alleged “containment” strategy to Southeast Asia, limiting Chinese influence and recruiting new allies to join in the military encirclement of China.

Instead of providing fodder for Chinese rhetoric, the freedom of navigation argument should remain in the background. Rather, what the US government should be talking about is making the world safe from unlawful international coercion. Ironically, the Chinese have begun practicing what Beijing’s diplomats have for decades condemned as “hegemonism” or “power politics”—strong countries forcing their self-interested preferences onto smaller countries.

Six governments claim ownership of parts of the South China Sea. None has a slam-dunk case. China is not the only claimant that has moved unilaterally to strengthen its control over South China Sea territory and resources in recent years. China, however, has distinguished itself in two important and negative ways. First, China’s claims are both unusually expansive and intentionally vague. Beijing has stubbornly refused to clarify its claims based on the guidelines in the international Law of the Sea treaty, to which the PRC is a signatory. This is part of a strategy of ambiguity by which the PRC tries to minimize global concern and to avoid being constrained by the Law of the Sea guidelines while taking actions aimed at intimidating individual rival claimants.

Second, the actions China has taken to assert ownership over the South China Sea and its tiny “islands” are stronger than those taken by the other claimants. These acts include threatening and damaging foreign ships, declaring a fishing ban for part of the year in half of the South China Sea and arresting foreign fisherman who do not comply. There is also the recent announcement of increased Chinese militarization of the region—not only the new garrison, but the statement by PLA spokesman Geng Yansheng in June that China has begun “regular, combat-ready patrols” in the South China Sea.

China’s actions are threatening because China is big. No other state in Southeast Asia can match the military power China is able to project into the South China Sea. China’s massive economic weight, rapid growth rate, and commitment to strengthening its military forces ensure that the gap will only grow larger in the future. To make the contest even more lopsided, the Chinese government recently announced plans to greatly increase the number of quasi-military patrol ships—operated by the PRC Coast Guard and other agencies—it will deploy in the South China Sea.

In effect, this is a struggle between two visions of international order for Asia. The US vision includes a system of norms and international laws that ensure, among other things, that small states are protected from predation by larger states and that dispute resolution procedures should be fair.

China, on the other hand, appears to favor restoring a Chinese sphere of influence in East and Southeast Asia such as the Middle Kingdom enjoyed anciently. Under this arrangement, the rules of international interaction would reflect basic Chinese interests. Beijing would expect regional governments not to take major decisions that run contrary to Chinese preferences. Beijing’s current unwillingness to base Chinese claims in the Law of the Sea treaty may reflect the sentiment that this mostly Western-written body of law will not be needed when China resumes its historical position of regional dominance.

Some observers see the China-US contention over the South China Sea as simply a squabble between two great powers that are both seeking regional domination. Each is acting in its respective hegemonic self-interest rather than in defense of some higher principle. In this case, however, US intervention is clearly aligned with the interests of the Southeast Asian countries, which seek to avoid domination by China or any other great power. China is trying to implement a might-makes-right order, while the United States is trying to ensure that smaller countries do not get steamrolled. This is the real issue, and

US officials should make it clear.

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