China, Japan, and the U.S. in the South China Sea
The most recent actions by China in their attempt to assert their claims to territory in and around the South China Sea has heightened tensions in the region in an unnecessary manner. The latest attempt of the new Chinese prerogative of territorial expansion deals with a small island chain that has large potential regional security consequences.
Here at “Frank’s Forum” I have stayed away from posting content on foreign policy in the past because it is not one of the areas my blog was set up to cover. However, this issue is one of high importance and the ramifications for the United States regarding their relationship with both China and Japan are so far reaching that I had to include this commentary.
If nothing else, I hope to raise awareness on a very important topic effecting a huge area of interest for the United States in Southeast Asia.
The Chinese government announced an “air defense zone” for the airspace surrounding the islands they call Diaoyo about 200 miles off their coast in the South China Sea. This announcement included a provision that any planes travelling within it would have to notify the Chinese government.
The United States made headlines by flying two B-52 bombers through that airspace without any notification to Beijing. This was seen by many as an indication by the United States that they will not accept China’s new attempts at expanding their sovereignty into that part of the Western Pacific.
The more troubling issue here is that China is trying to stake a new territorial claim on islands that Japan believes are within their sovereign holdings. The United States is essentially trapped in the middle because they are bound by treaty to come to the defense of Japan in the event of a threat on Japanese territory or interests.
The Japanese have long claimed those same islands, which sit 200 miles from Okinawa, and refer to them as Senkaku or “pinnacle points”. Japan also claims the airspace around the islands, and will not back down from the Chinese and their aggressiveness regarding this claim.
Japan is in a difficult position because they view the islands as their territory and if they escalate the situation with China it could result in potentially volatile military or political repercussions. However, if Japan decides to back away from these islands, it will only serve to embolden China in their desire to extend their sovereignty to the rest of the South China Sea. That will result in the potential for instability throughout the entire region.
Furthermore, the foreign policy officials from the U.S. State Department are concerned that this air defense zone creates conditions for an accidental incident such as Chinese jets shooting down a Japanese or U.S. plane in that air space. That would initiate a cascade of military activity that would be a serious problem for stability between these very powerful countries.
At the center of this entire tug-of-war for territory is the high yield potential of oil and gas reserves contained in the waters surrounding the Senkaku islands. China is dealing with a vastly growing population, which carries with it an increasingly high demand for more energy.
Conversely, Japan is trying to rebound their economy from a terrible recession, and they need to make use of any resources potentially available to them to grow their industrial capacity and economic output.
Caught in the Middle
The United States finds itself caught in the middle of two very important international partners in China and Japan. The experts on this subject feel that this latest incident with the B-52 bombers, and China sending their lone aircraft carrier to that area of the South China Sea for the first time, will not result in military action by any party involved.
Vice President Joseph Biden is in the region on a very timely official trip to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. The Vice President will attempt to ease the tension caused by China in their unilateral declaration of this protected air space surrounding that chain of islands.
Mr. Biden was in Japan first, where he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regarding this matter and several other foreign policy items. The threat of the air defense zone by China is expected to be a key issue. Many foreign policy experts believe that this expansionary exercise by China is being carried out in order to test the new Japanese leader.
However, Mr. Abe has shown a willingness to stand up to China and their territorial assertion regarding these islands. Then, at the same time, the prime minister is looking for the United States to be more demonstrative in their support of Japan in the case of this sovereignty claim for the Senkaku Islands.
Washington seems to have developed a position that takes the high ground in this circumstance. The United States does not want to get involved in a territory dispute between China and Japan for obvious reasons, and the White House has maintained that they recognize the claim of those islands by Japan but that the two countries need to work out a resolution.
Vice President Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for over five hours yesterday, according to the Associated Press, and the Chinese made no concessions on the air defense zone. At this point no consensus was reached in a pathway forward to help ease tensions in this volatile region. Beijing feels that the U.S. has sided with Japan on this matter and has ignored the aggressive tactics of Tokyo towards Chinese territory recently. Washington is trying to ride the middle ground here between two regional allies in Japan and China respectively, and trying to deescalate the tension which exists between the two nations.
The United States may be forced into a situation where that stance may become untenable, and the White House may have to change their strategy here to lead these two nations to explore a diplomatic solution to this issue. The State Department may have to intercede to avoid a further escalation in the region because the United States is bound by treaty to defend Japan. A policy of indecision could result in an act of aggression by China against Japan, which is not a military situation that anyone wants to be involved in at this point.
The Sino-Japanese relationship has been fraught with problems for many years dating back to the two wars between them and then the brutal Japanese occupation of China during World War II. The Chinese government has requested on several occasions, including recently, for a formal Japanese apology for this brutality and Tokyo has refused to comply.
In the interests of all sides involved in this matter, we have to hope that the United States is successful, or else this situation may get heightened further, and has the potential to go beyond just saber rattling.
However, China is looking to expand their sovereign reach, and this is probably just the first step in that new functional imperative. It is critically important for the stability of the region that the U.S., Japan, and other nations determine a strategy for how they will address these expansionary efforts by China in the future. The consequences of ignoring these attempts could be detrimental on many levels.