Wednesday, November 28, 2012

War over rocks? Most likely over oil and subs.

Mounting tensions in the East and South China Seas over territorial claims to tiny, mostly uninhabited, islands threatens to drag the United States into military conflict in Asia.  The U.S. will be obligated to play some role in trying to resolve the conflict, but how exactly it should exert its influence remains undecided.

The East China Sea conflict is between Japan and China over control of five islands and three rocks known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, in China as the Diaoyu Islands.  Located between Okinawa and Taiwan, this small archipelago has been claimed by both countries for centuries.  But, predictably, they have only recently been the source of escalating tensions after discovery of possible oil reserves.  For a brief history:
1895Japan unilaterally annexes five islands and three barren rock groups in the East China Sea, calls them "Senkaku." China's Qing Dynasty later cedes Taiwan and adjacent islands to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the First Sino-Japanese War.  Senkaku Islands are not included in the treaty.

1896Japan's government leases four of the islands, known in Japanese as Uotsuri, Minami, Kita and Kuba, to Tatsushiro Koga.

1945Japan surrenders, ending World War II, and returns Taiwan and adjacent islands to China in accordance with the Cairo Proclamation and Potsdam Declaration. The U.S. military takes control of the Senkaku Islands.

1969U.N. report says studies suggest the presence of large oil reserves in the waters of the Senkaku chain.

1971Taiwan, China, officially claim sovereignty over the islands, calling them "Diaoyu."

1972Japan regains control of Okinawa and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from the United States.  Tokyo agrees to let the U.S. military use Kuba and Taisho as firing ranges for an "indefinite" period.  Japan's defense ministry begins renting Kuba from its owners to ensure U.S. access to the island. Zenji Koga begins the process of selling Kuba, Uotsuri, Minami and Kita to the Kurihara family.  Sale completed in 1988.

2010September: Japanese coast guard ships collide with a Chinese trawler as they try to chase it from the waters around the islands.  Japanese authorities detain the Chinese captain for two weeks, upsetting China, which responds by suspending political and cultural exchanges and stopping rare earth exports to Japan.

2012July: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says the central government is in talks to buy the islands from the Kurihara family.
August 15: 14 pro-China activists sail to the islands to assert Chinese sovereignty claims.  Five swim ashore before the Japanese coast guard detains all the activists and deports them.
August 19: Japanese nationalists land on Uotsuri to assert Japan's sovereignty claim, ignoring Tokyo's warning that the landing is unauthorized. 
China says that "it is not trying to become an offensive naval power, but wants to secure its energy imports and boost development of maritime natural resources, which are expected to represent 10 percent of its economy by 2015."  A more pertinent explanation for China's more assertive claims over the islands, however, may be the U.S.'s "pivot" towards Asia -- a strategic reorientation of U.S. emphasis into the Pacific Rim.  China has become increasingly alarmed by the U.S.'s movement of military and diplomatic resources into its backyard.  In response to that reallocation, China is building up its military. 

According to Sam Roggeveen, an Asian defense analyst with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, "China has ambitions to become the premier military power among its regional peers, and [to become] a serious threat to U.S. maritime primacy in the Asia Pacific."  That reflects similar analysis from Sumihiko Kawamura, a retired commander of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.  "Kawamura believes Beijing is trying to turn the South China Sea into 'a safe haven' for its nuclear-powered submarines, which are armed with ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. For that purpose, seizing the Senkakus — just 190 km east of Taiwan and close to the northern gateway to the South China Sea — is indispensable." Being able to sneak nuclear-armed submarines into the Pacific Ocean from the East China Sea would allow China to hit the 48 U.S. continental states thereby dramatically increasing its nuclear deterence capacbility.

The South China Sea conflict similarly involves control over oil and gas reserves as well as strategic military outposts.  But five countries (China, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam) are involved in the dispute, increasing the complexity of any negotiation.  These territorial disputes concern the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has been ratified by all the countries in this conflict.  UNCLOS conveys title to each country over water 200 nautical miles beyond their "territorial waters" (so-called Exclusive Economic Zones [EEZ]).  China, however, claims most of the territory in the South China Sea by virtue of its self-imposed "nine-dashed" line (also called U-shaped line).  As you can see in the map, the nine-dashed line covers much the other countries' EEZs.  Moreover, China does not want to follow dispute resolution mechanisms in UNCLOS and prefers instead to negotiate bilateral agreements.

The United States has a security alliance with the Philippines, the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, that further complicates the conflict.  We regularly conduct joint military exercises with them and have recently reopened a military base in the country.  Any military conflict between China and the Philippines could drag in the U.S.

There might be reason to hope that tensions will dampen on their own.  The U.S. (which has security agreements with countries involved in the conflict), China, and South Korea (which also has a dispute with China over another island) have all recently undergone political transitions.  During the U.S. election, both Obama and Romney employed heated rhetoric towards China for some of its trade and human rights policies.  And China has been confrontation, possibly to display power in the face of criticism and to allay internal nationalist fervor.  After Korea finishes its election, the conflict might de-escalate for a short time though a final resolution will be needed to solidify long-term peace.

The myriad of issues in these two conflicts certain affect the United States interest in the region.  We want peace.  And we want economic prosperity to continue.  But the stakes are high.  Despite each country's stated claim -- that sovereignty over rocks is an imperative national interest -- the real quest is over access to oil and military control over a strategic region.  And given China's emergence as the regional heavyweight and the U.S.'s "pivot" toward Asia, don't expect a resolution to this conflict any time soon.  The best we can hope for is the status quo where no rockets have yet been fired and cooler heads can prevail.

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