China and its territorial disputes: One approach does not fit all

By Andy Yee, Hong Kong

International relations in Asia last year were characterised by conspicuous territorial disputes in the South China Sea — between China, the US and ASEAN — and the East China Sea — between China and Japan.

No doubt, China’s growing territorial assertiveness is an important factor in these disputes, which are geographically close and driven by economic and strategic considerations. However, attributing such conflict as simply an inevitable consequence of China’s rising power would be to misjudge the nuanced state of international affairs, and its different dynamics.

The essence of these differences lies in the respective regions’ power balances. Hegemonic stability theory suggests that imbalances in power contribute to cooperation, as weaker states are more interested in maximising pragmatic benefits, not gaining hegemonic power, resulting in more ‘give and take’ bargaining. Conversely, a symmetric power balance between states is far less conducive to creating cooperative regimes as both actors, if they are to obtain hegemonic power, must prevent each other from attaining that ultimate goal.

In March it was reported, that Chinese officials referred to the South China Sea as a ‘core interest’ of China. The response was an announcement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at the July ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), that the US had a ‘national interest’ in freedom of navigation through the waters — a widely understood attempt to internationalise the dispute, and challenge China’s policies.

In September, a diplomatic disaster occurred between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, with Japan detaining a Chinese fishing captain, asserting that his case would be handled under domestic laws. Notwithstanding this, the captain was released following tough diplomatic posturing by China — the resounding message being that Japan had backed down to Chinese bullying.

Among the South China Sea claimants, China is the strongest player, and has long championed a bilateral approach of negotiation so as to prevail over weaker states. Washington’s entry into the dispute changed these dynamics by counteracting Beijing’s assertiveness and creating space for bargaining. Such bargaining has proven productive, as seen through an easing of tensions after the July ARF meeting and a softening of the language used in the final communiqué, regarding territorial disputes, released from the September US-ASEAN summit in New York.

The inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) in October also served to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation, pledging to maintain peace and stability. Furthermore, efforts to implement the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) are proceeding, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao havingreiterated the importance of abiding by the Declaration.

As the weaker ASEAN states manoeuvre between America and China, pragmatic considerations drive them to strike a careful balance between the two powers. Vietnam, considered an aggressive claimant, illustrates this through its multiple strategies towards China. While it accelerated the modernisation of its navy, and encouraged the US and ASEAN to internationalise the problem while it chaired ASEAN last year, it holds regular dialogue with China to manage tensions. For example, Vietnam’s ‘3 nos’ policy: no military alliances, no foreign bases and no reliance on another country to combat a third country.

In contrast, regime building in the East China Sea is nascent; and the prognosis is not good as both China and Japan, rather symmetric in their capabilities, are pursuing hegemonic control.

In this case, Japan has exerted a high degree of effective control over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands since they were transferred from US administration in 1972. Japan has long pursued a policy of ‘no dispute’ — denying that any sovereignty issues exist — hoping that by exercising this ‘quiet power’, for as long as possible, its control will be solidified. Little progress has been made towards resolving what is becoming an increasingly bitter dispute.

Following the September flashpoint, both sides escalated a war of words after the captain’s release, with Japan describing China’s reaction as ‘extremely hysterical,’ and China expressing their shock at such comments. There is no sign of a thaw. On the sidelines of the ADMM-Plus, Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie reminded his Japanese counterpart that Japan did a poor job of handling sensitive issues affecting both countries. And while high-level talks and exchanges have resumed, Premier Wen Jiabao insisted to Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto at a meeting in Brussels in October that the Diaoyu Islands have always been Chinese territory.

Military conflict in the East China Sea cannot be ruled out. China’spast use of force in the South China Sea in the 1970s and 80s increased the strength of its claim, thus making future conflict more unlikely as it left little uncertainty over China’s capabilities and convictions in the region. The same cannot be said of the East China Sea, as a lack of combat history means there is little information about military capabilities and resolves.

While Asian countries have felt the impact of China’s ascendency, there are clear differences in Beijing’s approaches to disputes in the South and East China Seas, bringing with it important policy lessons, essential to conflict resolution and prevention.

While China has the power advantage, the presence of the US could be a key enabler for negotiations in the South China Seas. Recall thatit was ASEAN which chose to seek a deal with China rather than fight in the 1990s. It was subsequent US engagement with the region that shifted China to norm-affirming behaviour rather than resort to force, resulting in the 2002 Declaration on Conduct.

As for the East China Sea, progress seems more primitive. Never in history have China and Japan emerged as major geopolitical players at the same time; and with political, economic and military tensions rising there are substantial hurdles which must be overcome. Given the still-virulent, historically-rooted animosity between the two nations,  it seems evident that resolution needs to start with confidence building measures and, ultimately, a proper facing-up to history.

Andy Yee is a writer and translator based in Hong Kong. Educated at SOAS and Cambridge University, he has worked at the Political Section of the EU Delegation to China in Beijing. He blogs at Global Voices Online and China Geeks.

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