The countries of South-East Asia have learned the hard way the risks of living in the neighbourhood of a nation bent on asserting itself on the world’s stage.
Seventy years ago that nation was Japan. With its so-called “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere”, it promised to free its Asian kin from the yoke of western imperialism and give them the benefits of Japan’s dramatic transformation into a modern, industrialised and heavily armed state. Instead, after the British and the Dutch imperialists had been sent packing, that liberation turned into a new and more brutal form of servitude. The Japanese reduced them to colonies in all but name.
But the roles have changed. Now the new bully on the block is China, dwarfing its regional neighbours with its economic and military might just as Japan did in the 1930s. And this week Japan’s nationalistic prime minister Shinzo Abe went further than ever before to present his country as South East Asia’s best assurance against Chinese intimidation.
The US yesterday accused China of “destabilising” South-east Asia over the latest spat relating to resources under the South China Sea.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, said the US could not “look the other way” if nations broke international rules. He said China’s failure to resolve disputes – which include heated exchanges with Vietnam over China’s deployment of an oil exploration rig in the South China Sea – threatens the long-term progress of the region.
“All nations of the region, including China, have a choice: to unite, and recommit to a stable regional order, or to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that has benefited millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions of people around the world,” Mr Hagel said. He also backed the stance of Japan’s nationalist premier Shinzo Abe who, on Friday at the same conference, went further than ever before to present his country as South-east Asia’s best assurance against Chinese intimidation.
“Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of ASEAN” – the Association of South-East Asian Nations – “as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of over-flight,” he said.
The words were mild to the point of blandness. Far from demonising or attacking China, the People’s Republic was not even mentioned. But Mr Abe’s meaning was clear.
In a map filed with the United Nations in 2009, China claimed marine resources in almost the whole of the South China Sea, whose untapped oil and gas reserves could amount to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the US Energy Information Agency estimates. There is no legal basis to the claims, as Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner points out. “International law does not accept China’s argument,” he wrote in Slate magazine. “One must occupy an island in order to own it. The Law of the Sea treaty limits China to 200 nautical miles plus its continental shelf just like everyone else.”
But China is too big to be cowed by such concerns. And in the face of opposing claims it has begun flexing its muscles.
China’s deployment of an oil exploration rig in waters claimed by Vietnam sparked violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam last month. Vietnam sent patrol ships to the area which clashed with scores of Chinese vessels sent to protect the rig, then last Monday a Chinese vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, sinking it. The crew was rescued.
China refuses to entertain any objections to its claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, and described Vietnam’s reaction to the arrival of the oil exploration rig as “illegitimate and illegal harassment and sabotage against China’s regular operations.” The Chinese claims have raised tensions with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan as well as with Vietnam. All of them contest China’s rights to treat the sea as its own. And now Japan, which has its own dispute with China in the East China Sea over a group of uninhabited islets known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, is offering to help the smaller countries stand up to their giant neighbour.
“Unilateral drilling activities are taking place in areas of the South China Sea where borders are not defined,” Mr Abe told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published last Tuesday. “I am deeply concerned about the heightening of tension that has resulted. Japan’s position is that we will never tolerate the change of status quo by force or coercion. We are seeking a peaceful resolution based on international law. Regarding Vietnam, we’ve commenced consultation and review regarding the possible provision of patrol boats.”
Mr Abe describes Japan’s approach as “proactive pacifism,” and claims it is merely trying to cajole China into behaving correctly and observing “the rule of law.” “We should pursue peaceful solutions to the tensions in the Asia-Pacific region based on rules, based on discussions,” he went on. “…By doing so we would like to prod China into the judgement that this is how one must act in the international community.”
But China refuses to accept that there is anything to talk about. Its officials said that Mr Abe was using the “myth” of a China threat to strengthen Japan’s security policy, while a Chinese military official, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of the general staff, reportedly told Mr Hagel during a brief meeting yesterday: “You were very candid ... and, to be frank, more than our expectation.” According to the Associated Press, he added: “Although I do think that those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candour.”
“The Chinese never give any legal justification for their claims,” writes Robert Kaplan in his new book Asia Cauldron. “They have a real Middle Kingdom mentality, and are dead against taking these disputes to court.” And given the disproportion in the size and might of the opposing claimants, in the long run China is likely to get its way – unless Japan and the US are prepared to raise the stakes a lot higher.