“As was usually the case with these China ‘incidents’ the rights and wrongs of the affair had been thickly cloaked in ambiguity.” So notes JG Farrell in his novel, The Singapore Grip.
The ‘incident’ the author is referring to on this occasion involved a pitched battle in the streets of Shanghai between Japanese marines and Chinese nationalist forces. The year was 1932.
Fast forward 80 years, and wrangling between the Chinese and Japanese is as thickly cloaked in ‘ambiguity’ as ever.
Case in point: the dispute over a tiny cluster of islands that continues to be a thorny diplomatic issue. The controversial rocks are known as the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, and while of themselves are of little practical value, the sea beds around them are thought to be rich in oil and gas.
That has made both countries more strident in asserting their sovereignty to the atolls and the latest war of words was sparked last week when the Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, suggested his city was readying to buy the islands from a Japanese family that has lived on them.
Chinese spokesman Liu Weimin responded that the islands “have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times… China does not accept Japanese representations over them.”
To send a more forceful message Beijing then sent three fisheries patrol vessels into nearby waters – a move guaranteed to stoke tensions.
Tokyo then summoned the Chinese ambassador to dress him down. He was told China’s act was “unacceptable” and “extremely serious”.
This in turn drew an angry response from the nationalistic Chinese newspaper, the Global Times. It suggested Beijing wasn’t going far enough in its territorial demands and that China should consider claiming sovereignty over Okinawa too – an island on which 1.4 million Japanese currently live.
Tokyo’s Ishihara then launched a new row by proposing that a newlyborn panda at Tokyo Zoo should be named ‘Sen Sen’ or ‘Kaku Kaku’ to proclaim Japan’s ownership of the isles. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry quickly took the bait, describing the proposal as a “cheap farce”. But Ishihara may now be regretting the ploy too. Last Wednesday the week-old panda died and the plan had to be dropped.
Nonetheless, relations have continued to deteriorate. In a tit-for-tat move, a Japanese vessel was held in Shandong, allegedly for failing to comply with local pollution regulations. And in a reflection of how serious things were getting, Japan’s ambassador to China was recalled to Tokyo last Sunday for a private briefing. He was told to return to Beijing and “accurately convey” Japan’s stance.
This is not the only maritime dispute China is conducting with its neighbours though. As WiC has reported on numerous occasions before, Beijing has faced-off with the Philippines and Vietnam over islands in the South China Sea too.
Last week the spat with the Philippines resurfaced once more, when a Chinese naval frigate was sent into the disputed waters off the Spratly Islands (called the Nansha by China and Hasa-Hasa by Manila). Embarrassingly for the Chinese, the ship then managed to ground itself on Half Moon Shoal. But this less-than- Nelsonian display of naval prowess still prompted an earnest response from the Philippines. Manila’s foreign minister told a closed-door meeting of his ASEAN counterparts: “If Philippine sovereignty can be denigrated by a powerful country through pressure, duplicity, intimidation and the use of force, the international community should be concerned about the behaviour.”
The ASEAN meeting – held in Cambodia – became unusually controversial thanks to comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US wanted to see talks begin involving all parties in the South China Sea.
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go down well with the Chinese. In an editorial the China Daily snapped that the remarks were “inappropriate and ill-intentioned”, adding that “the US, as a force from outside the region, is not in any position to tell countries in the region how to solve their differences.”
Clinton was warned not to “interfere” or try to “sow seeds of discord”.
What about potential solutions? One might involve revenue sharing agreements for mineral resources in proximity to the disputed islands. But while that makes practical sense, all sides will have difficulty reaching agreement if their claims to full sovereignty look sullied as a result.
Little wonder, then, that media commentary is increasingly concerned. The Financial Times calls the waters a “potential military flashpoint” and Greg Torode in the South China Morning Post see a “growing danger of miscalculations”.
“Nowhere in the region, in fact, is such a diversity of militaries so proximate as across the South China Sea,” Torode warns. TIME magazine agrees that the disputes “are about to get a whole lot worse – and at the worst possible time.”
In the past Chinese foreign policy operated under the proviso that territorial disputes of this type could be settled at some ‘point in the future’. But this more patient approach seems to have been overturned by the country’s rising international confidence, its growing energy needs, and the desire to lay claim to oil and gas reserves close to home.
But will verbal volley ever turn more belligerent? Analysts increasingly feel that complacency is misplaced. Mark Valencia of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability told TIME: “What China is saying is ‘We have this historic claim to the South China Sea and we own everything within it – islands, reefs, submerged areas, resources, you name it. That’s the way it is, and we’re not even going to talk to you about it.’ But they’ve painted themselves into a corner now, and that’s very dangerous for everybody.”
China seeking to teach its neighbours a lesson or two isn’t unprecedented. We need only think back to the 200,000 troops sent into Vietnam in 1979. The justification? As Deng Xiaoping told the then US president Jimmy Carter: “It’s time to smack the bottom of unruly little children.” Let’s hope bottom-smacking isn’t on the agenda in the South China Sea any time soon.
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