Tag Archives: Japan

A Three-Way In The East China Sea?

Senkaku-Diaoyu-Tiaoyu-Islan
Or are there only two ways of looking at this map?

The conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea illustrates a number of issues in the Asia-Pacific region.  The People’s Republic of China’s expansive maritime claims is the granddaddy, but there are a number of contributing elements – from the challenges of deep-sea resource exploration to the region’s political relationships.  The week before Christmas the Center for National Policy hosted a discussion at their headquarters about a recent Scholars Delegation that took “next generation policy experts and decision makers” to Taipei to meet with officials from the Republic of China, known to most of us as Taiwan.  The delegation met with officials who were generally aligned with the current ruling party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (or KMT).  The panel discussion in Washington illuminated the fact that the political relationships in Asia aren’t a simple challenge defined by “alliances” and treaties.  Instead, there are cultural and ethnic seams that cut through these relationships based in centuries of history, and encompassing domestic and international politics alike.

The President of Taiwan has put forward a peace proposal for the conflict in the East China Sea, setting aside the question of sovereignty and instead focusing on how to share the economic benefits of resource exploitation in and around the islands.   Many analysts have indicated that the plan is more of an effort to kick the can than anything else.  CIMSEC friend Dr. James Holmes instead has written that “It amounts to hoping that rational calculations of economic self-interest will overrule equally elemental imperatives such as fear of future aggression or the thirst for honor and prestige.”  The proposal raises a question:  Why is the leadership of Taiwan trying to avoid the question sovereignty?  The discussion at CNP helped shed some light on the answer, and it is likely because of those cultural and ethnic seams and centuries of history.

In their comments during the panel discussion, both Dr. Jacqueline Deal and Michael Breen noted that the KMT embodies a strategic paradox that is driving a confused policy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  The KMT, the party once led by Chiang Kai-shek, believes that the Republic of China (ROC) is the rightful government of all of China, both Taiwan and the mainland.  According to their political platform reunification is a given once the People’s Republic of China (PRC) becomes democratic.  Because the KMT sees themselves and the ROC as Chinese, not Taiwanese, the foundation of their policy toward the Senkaku/Diauyo is exactly the same as the PRC: the Diaoyu belong to “China.”

This belief creates a strategy/policy disconnect for the KMT.  Strategic-level decision making becomes difficult because the party’s fundamental political belief can be at odds with the things that will help ensure the economic, political, and military security of the island of Taiwan.  Japan is likely the ROC’s strongest ally in the region, yet on the Senkaku/Diauyo the ROC rhetoric makes it appear that they are siding with the PRC.  Their fishing fleets have engaged in some unconventional tactics with the Japanese Coast Guard, similar to the work of the PRC’s maritime assets.  This likely strengthens the fact that the PRC prefers the “anti-PRC” KMT over the “liberal” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which believes in Taiwanese independence.  Is it any wonder that President Ma Ying-jeou wants to try and avoid the sovereignty issue?  Japan has elected a new conservative government with military expansion on their agenda.  The PRC has initiated maritime aviation patrols of the islands.  Neither side appears willing to set aside the fundamental sovereignty question in the conflict.

There is a large Chinese diaspora all over the world, from the islands of Southeast Asia to the streets of Panama City to Chinatowns of most major U.S. cities.  An audience member at the CNP panel reminded the gathering that there is a strong belief in all these places that the Diaoyu are “Chinese” – the political system that controls them is irrelevant.  The history of the Pacific and the military and political conflicts between the Chinese, Japanese, and the states of Southeast Asia go back centuries.  These cultural realities make the Pacific a complex place.  If the U.S. military thinks that trading the tribal cultures of Southwest Asia for the centuries of history in East Asia will make things simpler, it needs to rethink things.  Will hoping for modern ideals and economics to overwhelm centuries of culture and history work any better in Pacific waters than it did in Middle Eastern sands?

The Firm of Maynard, Cushing, & Ellis does not represent the opinions of anyone that matters. Formed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard RN, Lieutenant William Cushing USN, and Captain Pete Ellis USMC, the firm doesn’t speak for the US Government, the Department of Defense, The Foreign Office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the Department of Silly Walks.

Senkaku Islands Shuffle

                                            ….or Diaoyus Disco, Tiaoyutai Tango…

As tensions between China and Japan began to ease this week over competing claims to the Senkakus/Diaoyus, Taiwan dispatched a dozen coast guard vessels to escort its own approximately 40-ship fishing fleet to the disputed islands, which it also claims as the Tiaoyutai. Upon arrival, some of the ships entered the islands’ territorial waters and engaged in a water-soaked confrontation with Japan’s coast guard. Taiwan has reportedly withdrawn its coast guard vessels from the area, having made its point.

More interesting photos from the maritime ballet can be found here and here.

h/t: Galrahn

                                               “I see your water cannon is as big as mine.”

Some economic consequences of a ‘hot’ conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

An island of tranquility.

With the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands heating up, some have wondered about the prospect of a war between the two states and its possible outcome.  Though unlikely, a war between the world’s second and third largest economies, who alone share over $340 billion in bilateral trade, would be rather unfortunate, to say the least.  It is, however, an interesting exercise to consider some of the implications – in this case specifically economic – of such a conflict.

 

One consequence would be the disruption of sea- and air-borne trade flows in the region.  The Senkakus/Diaoyus lie approximately 100 nm northeast of Taiwan, in the vicinity of two of the busiest shipping channels in the world – the Taiwan and Luzon Straits.  Trade across the Taiwan Strait alone amounted to $147 billion in 2011, a figure which does not include trade simply passing through the strait to other destinations.  Many Asia-bound vessels from the Americas pass through the Luzon Strait, and both straits are key routes for oil shipments to Japan and Korea.

 

While one hundred nautical miles might seem a long distance, the range of Chinese and Japanese naval and aerial weapon systems means that any combat around the islands could spill over into adjacent areas, especially as each side engaged in whatever maneuvers were necessary to gain the upper hand.  The most modern Japanese anti-ship missile, for example, has a range of approximately 115 nm.  Chinese shore-based anti-ship ballistic missiles, by comparison, may have a range upwards of 1,700 nm, encompassing the entire region.  Combat, therefore, could lead to the inadvertent destruction of merchant shipping in these crowded waters, and would certainly cause a spike in maritime insurance rates and fuel costs as ships reroute to avoid combat zones, cutting into the profitability of overseas trade.

 

In addition to disrupting physical trade flows, a conflict between Japan and China could disrupt capital flows.  Even a short conflict would generate a great deal of uncertainty in the minds of investors.  Doubts could develop as to the longevity and profitability of investments in both countries due to fears of government asset seizures and heavy regulations on trade and monetary flows to keep their own economies relatively stable.  Numerous Japanese factories in China have already publically closed, due to a wave of popular anti-Japanese sentiment and protests, while still more major companies may be keeping quiet about their own closures.  Chinese and Japanese government policies to deliberately seize each others’ assets would only exacerbate the effects of these closures.  A conflict would also have unpredictable consequences for foreign exchange rates.  Lastly, the effects would be long-lasting:  any conflict would sow doubts about the long-term prospects for a peaceful East Asian environment. 

 

Not for all the fish in the sea.

Adding to the uncertainty is the unknown role the United States would play in any Sino-Japanese conflict.  According to the terms of the U.S.-Japanese bilateral defense treaty, the United States is obligated to come to the aid of Japan in the event of war. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated recently that the United States would abide by its treaty obligations if Japan was attacked, and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba noted that the treaty covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  It is, of course, not certain that the U.S. would become involved, or could become involved in the time frame of a short conflict.  If it did, however, its involvement would cause even greater disruptions to world trade and capital flows.  In 2011, the volume of U.S.-China trade topped $500 billion.  The result of direct, U.S.-Chinese conflict would almost certainly be a halt to that trade, to the detriment not only of the respective nations, but also the global economy.

 

The prospect of the disruptions to global trade outline above would be concerning enough at the best of times, but these are not those times.  A recent article in the New York Times noted that global economic growth appears to be slowing due to faltering Chinese growth and continuing problems in Europe.  Analysis by The Economist suggests that even a 3.9% reduction in the rate of Chinese capital accumulation would eliminate all of Taiwan’s 2012 economic growth, and ‘hobble South Korea.’  Given that this is a potential result of current, purely economic factors, an armed conflict between two of the world’s great economic powers could only magnify it.

 

With the potential negative economic consequences of a war over the Senkakus/Diaoyus, let’s hope that cool heads prevail in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

Ian Sundstrom is a graduate of the War Studies Masters Program at King’s College London.  He is currently engaged on a research project for Imperial War Museum – Duxford in Cambridge, United Kingdom. 

           

(Updated 9/18) Keeping up with the Senkakus: China Establishing a New Reality on the Ground…er, Sea

UPDATE: 9/18:

Japan’s Coast Guard has its hands full: Latest reports indicate up to 11 Chinese maritime surveillance ships have entered the Senkakus/Diaoyus’ Continguous Zone while a pair of fishermen swam ashore one of the islands before departing.

UPDATE: 9/17:

In addition to the anti-Japanese protests and violence which has flared throughout China this weekend, Chinese state media has indicated the possibility of further reaction to the nationalization of the Senkakus/Diaoyus to come later this week.  Chinese state radio said Monday that “1,000” fishing vessels are headed to the waters near the islands, as a fishing ban comes to an end.  Of note, the report quoted a Chinese source who said the vessels’ activities would be monitored by a “marine observation satellite.”  It is unclear whether this is an attempt to say the six vessels still believed in the vicinity of the islands will attempt to avoid a confrontation with the Japanese Coast Guard on station, or whether it just indicates China will be watching the situation very closely.  Meanwhile, Hong Kong reports that the ship Kai Fung 2, which earlier helped keep the islands in the spotlight, will attempt a return voyage this week as well.

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Hi, Hai Jian!

In the past week, while American attention has largely been diverted, China appears to have taken a number of steps to change the reality of the situation in the Senkakus/Diaoyus (hereafter referred to as Senkakus for brevity’s sake) in a coordinated diplomatic, media, legal, and physical push.

 

With the maelstrom of news emanating from the Muslim world, U.S. media coverage of other, possibly more consequential events inevitably slackened.  Fortunately our international and domestic partners have carried the ball a bit with regards to the disputed islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan.  While we noted the reports on Tuesday of two Chinese ships – the Hai Jian 46 and Hai Jian 49 – dispatched to and arriving outside the islands’ Territorial Waters (TW), the number that arrived eventually totaled six, twice as many ever previously sent by China at one time.  A good account of the stand-off, on pause for now, can be found at The Asahi Shimbun.  Although the Chinese vessels have all left the islands’ TW, they remain in the direct vicinity.

 

The Senkakus are the same five islands, under administrative control of Japan (and populated only by goats), at the center of Japanese Coast Guard clashes with Chinese fishermen and most recently protestors from all claimants.  The Atlantic Council of Canada has a good article on the history of the conflict, but the immediate cause of the Chinese flotilla was the purchase of three of the islands by Japan’s national government (another was already government-owned, and the last owned by another private owner).  The decision to go forward with the purchase was forced by Tokyo’s nationalist metropolitan government, which also attempted to buy the islands but would have furthered their use as a provocative cause célèbre – whereas the central government has mostly sought to play down tensions between the two economic partners.

 

However, with the lead-time given by advance warnings of the sale date on Sept. 11th, China had time to prepare a coordinated response.  As our counterparts @Galrahn and @cdrsalamander noted, this response not only involved the vessels themselves (which, significantly or not are from State Oceanic Administration while previous vessels were from the Ministry of Agriculture) but also articles backing the move ready to run in China’s state media.  Further, these actions appear timed to coincide with the PRC’s announcement of baselines demarcating their claims and the start of weather forecasts for the area.

 

Peaceful…but effective?

Although unprecedented for this particular conflict, China appears to be following a course it charted earlier this summer in the South China Sea, where it has so far successfully established a new reality on the ground with the Philippines-claimed and previously administered Scarborough/Pantang Shoal.  The Philippines Coast Guard pulled back its vessels on June 16th due to bad weather and has yet to return, effectively ceding control to the Chinese civilian maritime agencies, who have maintained a presence in the area and attempted to physically impede any non-Chinese vessels.

 

Back in the East China Sea, as the Christian Science Monitor noted, China likely had to take some action to appease nationalist sentiment at home in reaction to Japan’s moves.  But the paper also said that the movement of the vessels back out of the islands’ TW can be taken as a sign of China’s unwillingness to take things too far.  Here’s hoping they’re right – and that fears of further turmoil before the country’s leadership transition will serve as a break.  But with precedence already established in the South China Sea, and the vessels still loitering in the area, many signs point to the potential for future confrontation – and it may begin as early as next week. 

 

On Friday Xinhua said the vessels will start “patrol and law enforcement around the Diaoyu Islandswhile the catalyst for conflict could begin Sunday, when China’s self-imposed three-and-a-half-month fishing ban in waters near the Senkakus ends (although a typhoon to the east of the islands may further complicate the situation (h/t Galrahn)).  A Bureau of Fisheries official stated: “A large number of fishing boats will leave their ports…We will resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and the safety of fishers and step up controls in marine areas that include the Diaoyu Islands.”  Adding to the fun, Taiwan has also sent two Coast Guard vessels to protect any of its own fishermen brave enough to wade into the waters.

 

Not a pretty kitty. MEOW: Mutual Economic Obliteration Worldwide

From the perspective of the U.S., hoping to de-escalate any conflict between two of its most important trading partners and avoid being dragged in to an armed conflict, it’s clear we need better mechanisms with the PRC in case of emergency.  The threat of MEOW (mutual economic obliteration worldwide) is not enough.  It’s vital to separate the sides in the early stages to prevent a confrontation going past a point of no return – so we need to know who to call, and that they’ll have actual authority to call vessels back.  That is of course easier said than done with a country whose future president can drop of the face of the Earth for over a week at a time.  What the U.S. can work on, however, is building “habits of trust and cooperation,” through increasing partnership opportunities with China – a topic I will return to shortly.

 

If the long-term solution has to be through international diplomacy, China, by demarcating its claims to the specific rocks and islands around the Senkakus – a step experts have called the Chinese to take in the South China Sea – might this week actually have made progress of a sort.  But next week might not be as useful.

 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

 

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.