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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

South China Sea Disputes Continue




High Stakes in the South China Sea
The Diplomat : By Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt
Coverage of the South China Sea territorial dispute has tended to paint the story as that of a giant China flexing its muscle over a handful of smaller Southeast Asian states. But while China’s increasingly assertive behavior shows its willingness to exploit the weaknesses of other claimants, the picture is not as simple as it is often portrayed. Vietnam and the Philippines are pushing back against China, and many countries are stoking tensions in the sea. Together, their actions leave plenty of room for open conflict to break out.

Vietnam and the Philippines are no strangers to confronting China over the South China Sea. Vietnam and China fought two wars in the 1970s and 1980s over the Paracels, while China occupied a Philippine-claimed reef in the mid-1990s in the Spratlys. Tensions have run high again in recent years, driven by resource and strategic interests.
Beijing is more determined than ever to ensure that its Southeast Asia rivals do not come between it and its territorial claims. In the face of Beijing’s growing confidence, Hanoi and Manila are actively enlisting the aid of ASEAN and the United States.
Vietnam had some early success. Hanoi deftly outmaneuvered China, much to Beijing’s embarrassment, by championing the sovereignty issue on ASEAN’s agenda during its chairmanship of the organization in 2010. Its efforts culminated in U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s landmark speech that declared that the South China Sea was a U.S. “national interest.” The phrase was a rude awakening for China and, according to a Vietnamese diplomat, was a major reason that Beijing started taking Hanoi more seriously.
However, Hanoi and Manila’s efforts are now failing to convince China to tread more lightly. Beijing has simply upped the ante in response. The Philippines has also responded to China’s claims by leaning on its military alliance with Washington, even going so far as to advocate interpreting the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in a way that includes the South China Sea—a position the United States has yet to endorse.
Nor do bold steps always produce a persuasive show of force. Manila’s deployment of a warship to intercept Chinese vessels poaching in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in April began a standoff that was only broken by a typhoon. Hanoi’s passage of a maritime law in June, requiring foreign naval ships entering the disputed areas to notify Vietnamese authorities, was countered by Beijing’s creation of a centrally administered outpost in the South China Sea, Sansha City, complete with its own military garrison.
In this game of tit-for-tat, Vietnam and the Philippines are clearly vulnerable. ASEAN has been too divided as of late to be of much help. The diverging interests of individual ASEAN states have stalled negotiations over a code of conduct agreement with China. The end result was a diplomatic deadlock at this month’s foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh, the first time in the organization’s 45-year history that ASEAN members failed to issue a joint statement.
With no mechanisms to manage tensions and the prospects of a resolution diminishing, directly pushing back against Beijing seems to be an ever escalating gamble for Hanoi and Manila. But domestic demand in Vietnam and the Philippines for hydrocarbon and fish stock is eroding the longstanding restraints on conflict. Furthermore, rising nationalism and a reluctance to appear weak before their respective domestic audiences are nudging them towards greater confrontation with China as the latter enlarges its maritime footprint. High stakes coupled with an increase of tensions means that a misstep by either China or Southeast Asian claimants can all too easily escalate the dispute to irreversible levels.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt is the Beijing-based China and Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. The International Crisis Group recently released the second in a series of reports in the South China Sea.
Read More Nationalism & The South China Sea Dispute:
Nationalism Stokes Island Disputes Around Asia
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — They are mere specks on the map. Many are uninhabited, and others sparsely so by fishermen and seasonal residents. Yet the disputed ownership of these tiny constellations of islands is inflaming nationalist fervor from the cold North Pacific to the tropical South China Sea.
In recent weeks, these long-simmering tensions have returned to a boil, with violent protests in Chinese cities, a provocative island junket by South Korea’s lame-duck president, and Japan’s government reportedly planning to buy disputed islands from their private owners.
The popular analysis is that the rising tensions are fueled by a regional power shift that has seen China become increasingly assertive with its neighbors in securing claims over potentially resource-rich waters to its south and east. But the growing acrimony may have at least as much to do with domestic political posturing.
“Wrapping yourself up in the national flag gives a very convenient exit for people with other agendas to justify their positions,” says political scientist Koichi Nakano of Tokyo’s Sophia University.
Nationalism has often been used by China’s communist leaders to cover up domestic problems — such as the economic slowdown the country is now facing, not to mention problems with a growing rich-poor divide and official corruption.
The same could be said, to an extent, in Japan and South Korea, where some politicians seem to be using the island disputes to further their agenda ahead of elections or to divert attention from thornier topics.
Few believe the diverse Asian actors in this rapidly developing drama will actually come to blows, but manipulation of popular opinion in island disputants like China, South Korea and the Philippines is raising the chances of violence by either accident or miscalculation. Such an outcome would seriously threaten the fragile tranquility that has helped catapult tens of millions of Asians from poverty to prosperity.
The disputed islands were on the agenda this week as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled across the region.
Meeting Monday with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, she urged members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations to present a united front to China in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea. She also discussed the issue with Chinese leaders during meetings in Beijing this week.
Preferred access to potentially lucrative oil and gas reserves and rich fishing grounds is helping to drive the disputes, along with an increasingly prosperous and militarily strong China that is beginning to challenge America’s historic supremacy as a Pacific power.
“There is a big power shift in this region and that is encouraging the parties involved to make their case in order not to lose their ground,” said security specialist Narushige Michishita of Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
But the nationalist card is also front and center as governments jockey for position.
“Nationalism is playing a very large role in all of these disputes,” said international relations specialist George Tsai of Taipei’s Chinese Culture University. “Whether it’s China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines or Korea, all these countries are appealing to nationalist sentiments.”
Right-wing politicians in Japan are using the issue to drum up nationalist support, and even mainstream politicians within the ruling party seem willing to let the issue grab headlines from issues like a tax hike and energy policy reforms that are being demanded after last year’s nuclear disaster, Nakano says.
Similar motives can be seen in outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to an island claimed by Seoul and Tokyo as he seeks to boost his legacy on what could become a key issue in his party’s bid to maintain power in what will be a toughly fought election.
Last month lame duck Lee became the first Korean president to set foot on Dokdo island, which is called Takeshima by Japan. Korea and Japan have a bitter history — marked by decades of harsh Japanese colonial rule on the Korean peninsula. Thumbing one’s nose at Tokyo has long had substantial cache for millions of Koreans.
“I’m skeptical that this has anything to do with international relations,” Nakano said. “It has more to do with domestic politics because internationally it doesn’t make any sense.”
In the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III has been much more outspoken than predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on the need to defend the country’s territorial claims, and has publicly appealed to the U.S. for help with China’s challenge to disputed areas in the South China Sea.
Aquino wants international arbitrators to resolve the issues, a stance that has nettled China, which insists the best way of settling differences with Asian neighbors is through bilateral talks.
China has also been at loggerheads with Vietnam, particularly after Beijing’s formal creation of a municipality headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, long a bone of contention between the two nations. China and Vietnam have a millennia-long history of fear and loathing, and China’s establishment of a Paracels prefecture prompted anti-China demonstrations in Hanoi, where authorities are normally quick to squelch popular manifestations of anger.
Vietnam has also sparred with Taiwan over the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands, claimed by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. On Tuesday, the Taiwanese Coast Guard held a live fire exercise on Taiping Island in the Spratly chain, partly in response to the Vietnamese occupation of other Spratly locations. Taiwanese legislators rushed to attend the exercises.
Just north of Taiwan, China and Japan remain immersed in their long-running battle over what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese call Diaoyutai. Located roughly equidistant from Chinese and Japanese territory, the Japanese-controlled islands surged to prominence earlier this year when Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s strongly nationalistic governor, proposed purchasing and developing them. Japan’s central government stepped in, and on Wednesday Japanese media reported it had agreed to buy several islands from their private Japanese owners — a move that Japanese experts say is an attempt to sideline Ishihara and his nationalistic agenda.
Thousands took to the streets in Chinese cities last month to protest Japan’s claims, with demonstrators burning flags and vandalizing Japanese restaurants and cars.
Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada maintained Thursday that the flare up had not hurt official relations between the countries and emotions on both sides were being fanned by activists.
___
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge and Malcolm Foster in Tokyo, Chris Brummit in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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