May 20, 2013
Powder Keg in the Pacific
Posted on Jan 23, 2013
By Michael Klare, TomDispatch
The East China Sea has similarly witnessed tense encounters of late. Last September, for example, Japanese authorities arrested 14 Chinese citizens who had attempted to land on one of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to press their country’s claims, provoking widespread anti-Japanese protests across China and a series of naval show-of-force operations by both sides in the disputed waters.
Regional diplomacy, that classic way of settling disputes in a peaceful manner, has been under growing strain recently thanks to these maritime disputes and the accompanying military encounters. In July 2012, at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asian leaders were unable to agree on a final communiqué, no matter how anodyne—the first time that had happened in the organization’s 46-year history. Reportedly, consensus on a final document was thwarted when Cambodia, a close ally of China’s, refused to endorse compromise language on a proposed “code of conduct” for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Two months later, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing in an attempt to promote negotiations on the disputes, she was reviled in the Chinese press, while officials there refused to cede any ground at all.
As 2012 ended and the New Year began, the situation only deteriorated. On December 1st, officials in Hainan Province, which administers the Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, announced a new policy for 2013: Chinese warships would now be empowered to stop, search, or simply repel foreign ships that entered the claimed waters and were suspected of conducting illegal activities ranging, assumedly, from fishing to oil drilling. This move coincided with an increase in the size and frequency of Chinese naval deployments in the disputed areas.
On December 13th, the Japanese military scrambled F-15 fighter jets when a Chinese marine surveillance plane flew into airspace near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Another worrisome incident occurred on January 8th, when four Chinese surveillance ships entered Japanese-controlled waters around those islands for 13 hours. Two days later, Japanese fighter jets were again scrambled when a Chinese surveillance plane returned to the islands. Chinese fighters then came in pursuit, the first time supersonic jets from both sides flew over the disputed area. The Chinese clearly have little intention of backing down, having indicated that they will increase their air and naval deployments in the area, just as the Japanese are doing.
While war clouds gather in the Pacific sky, the question remains: Why, pray tell, is this happening now?
Several factors seem to be conspiring to heighten the risk of confrontation, including leadership changes in China and Japan, and a geopolitical reassessment by the United States.
* In China, a new leadership team is placing renewed emphasis on military strength and on what might be called national assertiveness. At the 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held last November in Beijing, Xi Jinping was named both party head and chairman of the Central Military Commission, making him, in effect, the nation’s foremost civilian and military official. Since then, Xi has made several heavily publicized visits to assorted Chinese military units, all clearly intended to demonstrate the Communist Party’s determination, under his leadership, to boost the capabilities and prestige of the country’s army, navy, and air force. He has already linked this drive to his belief that his country should play a more vigorous and assertive role in the region and the world.
In a speech to soldiers in the city of Huizhou, for example, Xi spoke of his “dream” of national rejuvenation: “This dream can be said to be a dream of a strong nation; and for the military, it is the dream of a strong military.” Significantly, he used the trip to visit the Haikou, a destroyer assigned to the fleet responsible for patrolling the disputed waters of the South China Sea. As he spoke, a Chinese surveillance plane entered disputed air space over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, prompting Japan to scramble those F-15 fighter jets.
* In Japan, too, a new leadership team is placing renewed emphasis on military strength and national assertiveness. On December 16th, arch-nationalist Shinzo Abe returned to power as the nation’s prime minister. Although he campaigned largely on economic issues, promising to revive the country’s lagging economy, Abe has made no secret of his intent to bolster the Japanese military and assume a tougher stance on the East China Sea dispute.
In his first few weeks in office, Abe has already announced plans to increase military spending and review an official apology made by a former government official to women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. These steps are sure to please Japan’s rightists, but certain to inflame anti-Japanese sentiment in China, Korea, and other countries it once occupied.
Equally worrisome, Abe promptly negotiated an agreement with the Philippines for greater cooperation on enhanced “maritime security” in the western Pacific, a move intended to counter growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. Inevitably, this will spark a harsh Chinese response—and because the United States has mutual defense treaties with both countries, it will also increase the risk of U.S. involvement in future engagements at sea.
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