Friday, July 27, 2012

An explosive combination in East Asia

One of the very few places where the Obama administration seems to have gotten the policy largely right is in the Far East, where China is acting a lot like Japan circa 1937. The US has had success building a loose alliance of states -- Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam (yes, Vietnam!) and Indonesia, in addition to the usual Taiwan -- who are victims of Chinese bullying. And they need it, for things are continuing to get worse, as a detailed in a new report:
The disputes between China and four of its Southeast Asian neighbors over claims in the South China Sea have become so intense, the prospect of open conflict is becoming more likely, an authoritative new report says.

The disputes, enmeshed in the competition for energy resources, have reached an impasse, according to the report, by the International Crisis Group, a research organization that has become a leading authority on the frictions.
“All of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing,” said the report, titled “Stirring Up the South China Sea: Regional Responses.”
The pessimistic conclusion came a day after China stepped up its political and military control of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which both Vietnam and the Philippines claim, and the Macclesfield Bank, claimed by the Philippines. The islands are known in Chinese as Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha.
On Monday, the Philippine president, Benigno S. Aquino, III, announced plans to buy aircraft, including attack helicopters, that could be used in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China and the Philippines have competing claims there over the Scarborough Shoal and potentially energy-rich underwater ground around Reed Bank, among other areas.

In a speech before a joint session of the Philippine Congress, Mr. Aquino adopted an aggressive stance against an unspecified threat. “If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” he said. “It’s not right to give away what is rightfully ours.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded on Tuesday, saying that the Philippine president had no legal standing to rely on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as the basis for his claim on Huangyan Island, the Chinese name for the Scarborough Shoal.
The analysis by the International Crisis Group apportions blame to both China and its neighbors for the ratcheting up of incidents and tensions in the sea, one of the most traveled bodies of water in the world and a vital pathway for the United States and its allies. The group’s Beijing office has spent two years studying the South China Sea, interviewing decision makers in China and in the claimant countries.
The International Crisis Group sounds like the school system who ignore a bully until a victim of the bully finally stands up the bully, at which time the school suspends them both because "it takes two to make a fight." Idiots.
In April, the group released a report focused on the military and civilian agencies that play a role in China’s actions in the South China Sea, ranging from the People’s Liberation Army to a fisheries bureau.
The vagueness of China’s claims to islands and energy resources in the sea has rattled other claimants, the new report said. China bases some of its claims in the sea on discoveries by ancient Chinese navigators. More specifically, China lays claim to everything within what is called a nine-dash map drawn shortly after World War II. By some estimates, the nine dashes mark off 80 percent of the South China Sea.
But China’s assertive approach has been matched by Vietnam and the Philippines, which are forcefully defending their claims and enlisting outside allies, the report said.
Lest you think this is a latter-day Quemoy and Matsu, read that again: 80 percent of the South China Sea, through which much of the world's commerce must travel, would be under the control of thugs in Beijing. Unacceptable.

And China is ratcheting it up once again:
Chinese authorities announced this week that they would station troops on Yongxing Island, a speck of land about 220 miles (350 km) southeast of Hainan Island. China has designated Yongxing as the capital of a newly created administrative region called Sansha. It is intended to extend Chinese administrative control over the resource-rich Paracel, Spratly and Macclesfield Bank island groups. Those islands — known in China as Xisha, Nansha and Zongsha, respectively — are variously claimed by China and five neighboring countries and have been the source of increasing confrontations in the region.
The official Xinhua news agency said the Sansha military garrison will be responsible for guarding Yongxing, conducting disaster-relief and rescue operations, and “carrying out military missions.” No details on troop levels or what that last bit might include.
Yongxing, also called Woody Island, measures less than one square mile (2.6 sq km). It has a small airfield and artificial harbor and a permanent population of about 1,100. Virtually all food, water and supplies must be taken in by ship or plane.
Retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mike McDevitt, a former carrier-battle-group commander with experience in the South China Sea, says establishing a garrison on the island won’t alter the military balance or signal imminent hostilities. Any significant military operations in the region, he says, would be mounted from Hainan, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has major air, land and sea bases, rather than from tiny, salt-soaked Yongxing.
“Putting garrisons on Woody Island or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag — to say, ‘We are serious,’” says McDevitt, a former director of East Asia Policy at the Department of Defense and now a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses near Washington, D.C.
Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime-security specialist at Tokyo’s Japan Institute of International Affairs, says China already effectively controls the Paracels through its naval forces and scattered island outposts. Even if troops on Yongxing were assigned surveillance equipment or even antiship defenses, he says, it would do little more than duplicate capabilities China already has nearby.
“They’re basically just sending a political message. I’m not sure what other role those troops could play,” says Kotani.
Whether it’s all part of a carefully synchronized strategy by Beijing or a messy improvisation by fractious government ministries remains unclear. In a report issued in April, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, attributed much of tension in the South China Sea to poor coordination among 11 different Chinese agencies that have responsibility for security or maritime affairs.
That's a big reach. Wishful thinking in the extreme.
“Some agencies are acting assertively to compete for a slice of the budget pie, while others such as local governments are focused on economic growth, leading them to expand their activities into disputed waters,” the report says. “Their motivations are domestic in nature, but the impact of their actions is increasingly international.”
Indeed, China’s State Council established the Sansha district in late June, apparently to retaliate for a law passed by Vietnam declaring the entire Paracels as their own. No mention was made of a military garrison until it was announced this week, in something of a surprise, by China’s Central Military Commission.
Regardless, the potential for trouble is real.
Philippine news media reported this week that China has begun building a military airstrip at a place called Subi Reef, in the Spratly Islands. That’s just 12 miles (20 km) from where the Philippines has its administrative headquarters for what it claims as its part of the Spratlys — altogether a collection of some 750 islets, atolls, reefs and sandbanks spread over some 175,000 sq. mi. (453,000 sq km). That’s about the size of California and Texas combined.
The Philippines says a flotilla of 10 Chinese fishing boats escorted by at least two PLA navy frigates and other maritime patrol boats have begun fishing — illegally, according to the Philippines — at the Subi Reef as well. Emotions are still running high in both countries after China forced the Philippines to back down last month from a confrontation at the Scarborough Shoal, and after China squelched an attempt earlier this month by the ASEAN alliance to fashion a formal code for resolving the territorial disputes.
Maybe that's why the Philippines is apparently offering us basing privileges again. Clark Field, Subic Bay, Sangley Point, here we come?
Both the Philippines and Vietnam have said they won’t recognize China’s Sansha district.
The U.S. is trying hard to stay out of the territorial disputes. The U.S. says its sole concern is ensuring that sea lanes remain open and trade unimpeded. The Navy is in the process of shifting 60% of warships to the Asia-Pacific region — just to make sure.
Walter Russell Mead says the US is trying to keep the tensions down, without much success so far:
U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon just concluded what the White House is calling a “low-key” but productive visit to China. NYT correspondent Jane Perlez writes, ”China’s top leaders value their relationship with the White House most of all.” Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy adviser to China’s State Council, said that members of China’s top brass ”trust the White House more than the State Department or the Pentagon.”
If, as the White House says, Donilon’s visit was productive, perhaps we’ll see China softening its approach on South China Sea disputes in the future. At the moment, that’s not happening, as hawkish Chinese officials continue to reject neighbors’ claims to islands and territory, and Beijing is doing so with more than just rhetoric: Three Chinese maritime patrol ships entered Japanese waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands earlier this month, followed the very next day by another patrol boat, prompting Tokyo to summon the Chinese ambassador for an explanation. The islands, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his Japanese counterpart, are “inherently” Chinese.
And the Senkaku issue is hardening Japanese attitudes towards China and fostering Japanese nationalism:
Former Japanese general Toshio Tamogami has a dream: fed up with bowing to China and the United States, patriotic politicians form a new party that puts national interests first, bolsters the military and rewrites the pacifist constitution.
"In Japan, there are pro-China politicians and there are 'conservatives', but almost all of those are pro-American and say 'let's do what America tells us to do'," said Tamogami, a former air force chief of staff who was sacked in 2008 for writing that Japan was ensnared into World War Two by the United States and was not an aggressor in the conflict in Asia.
"We need to have a political party that brings together 'pro-Japan' politicians. If we don't, Japan will simply continue to decline," said Tamogami, who for the past two years has headed the nationalist group "Ganbare Nippon" ("Stand Firm, Japan").
Tamogami's dream of an influential new nationalist party appears a mostly forlorn hope for now, analysts said, but right-wing groups of that ilk are already pushing mainstream parties to the right.
Hoping to grab public attention, Tamogami's group will sponsor a trip next month by parliamentarians, local lawmakers and others to waters near a chain of islets in the East China Sea at the heart of a worsening feud between China and Japan.
"By doing this, we want to raise the public awareness of the Senkaku Island issue," Tamogami told Reuters, using the Japanese name for the islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, located near rich fishing grounds and potential maritime oil and gas reserves.
The islands dispute could easily fan smoldering nationalist sentiment among Japanese worried about their declining global status and glum economic future.
"I don't think the group would have much clout but it can successfully push the debate to the right," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
"Hashimoto has the same impact ... So-called moderate parties get dragged along," Nakano said, referring to popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, whose Ishin no Kai party plans to bid for seats in a national election due by September 2013.
Ishin no Kai has not fleshed out its stance on security issues beyond stating support for the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but nationalists number among its supporters.
Commenting on recent incursions by Chinese vessels into the disputed waters, Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said on Friday that it was legally possible to mobilize Japan's military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, to defend the isles.
"Action by the SDF is secured by law in cases where the Japan Coast Guard or police cannot respond," Kyodo news agency quoted Morimoto as telling a news conference.
Despite growing links between Asia's two biggest economies, experts say simmering nationalism among Japanese worried about their country's fading global status and stagnant economy can easily clash with its mirror image in an assertive China, where memories of Japan's past military occupation run deep.
Ties between the two countries went into a deep chill in 2010 after Japan detained the skipper of a Chinese trawler whose boat collided with two Japanese patrol boats near the islands.
A Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol boats? Either the captain was drunk or completely incompetent or he did it intentionally. My guess is it was intentional.

In any event, I think we all remember what happened the last time Japan got nationalist fever. That said, personally I'd be quite happy to watch Japan kick some Communist Chinese butt. But I won't pretend it would be good for the world. It would not be, and it would be preferable if that fate was avoided.

With China, though, it may be inevitable.


  1. I wonder if it's not too far-fetched to need a far East version or expansion of NATO that includes Japan, India and Israel. Everybody's obviously not on the same page on economics, energy, and variations of non-totalitarian government. However, I'm wondering if there isn't more to be gained than lost, particulary in security. The potential of both Russia and China collaborating with Iran on Syria is a chiller.

  2. Complex, but similar to Japan in the 1930s, I agree. Since the US doesn't normally "do Asia" very well, the government better tread carefully.