It’s been a rather eventful summer in Pacific Asia. This three-part mini-series will briefly examine some highlights that have regional and global implications. We begin with a look at the region’s territorial disputes and a major failure on the part of the region’s cooperative organization, ASEAN.
Much Ado about Islands
The Asia-Pacific region was witness to no less than three maritime disputes this summer. Each of the disputes was the latest iteration of long-running disagreements over territorial demarcations and sovereign boundaries.
In the South China Sea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and China have reinvigorated territorial claims over ownership of the sea’s two major archipelagos – the Spratly and Paracel Islands. These claims are part of a larger multilateral dispute that encompasses most of the South China Sea and involves several other Southeast Asian nations. This summer saw a series of tit-for-tat incidents that included the Philippines renaming the sea itself, Vietnamese-Indian energy exploration of disputed areas, a Chinese warship running aground in Philippine waters, stand-offs between Chinese and Philippine civilian vessels, the Chinese establishment of an island garrison in disputed waters, and aggressive posturing from all sides.
In the East China Sea, Japan, Taiwan and China are embroiled over control of the uninhabited but privately-owned Diaoyu (Chinese)/Senkaku (Japanese) islands. A collision between Taiwanese and Japanese vessels near the islands prompted Tokyo to consider purchasing the islands from their Japanese owner. Chinese protesters sailed to and landed on the islands, but were quickly detained by Japanese authorities and returned to China. Beijing sent two patrol ships to exercise its ownership, while anti-Japanese protests broke out in several Chinese cities, and intensified after Tokyo announced it had reached a purchase deal. Though largely sidelined (and not formally recognized by Japan), Taiwan remains adamant in its ownership of the disputed islands.
With tensions running high, the danger now lies in a miscalculation that could send two of the region’s biggest military powers into open conflict. Neither country wants to come to blows over a few small islands, but nationalist fervour in both nations may force a more severe reaction than either side would otherwise want. By the same token, irrational nationalism has also made it difficult for Tokyo and Beijing to mutually back down from their current positions to avoid further provocation.
In the Sea of Japan, South Korea and Japan are at odds over a group of small islets called the Liancourt Rocks/Dokdo (Korean)/Takeshima (Japanese) Islands. Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the barren islands – an unprecedented and unexpected move from either side. The diplomatic flurry that followed has re-ignited longstanding animosities and elicited visceral responses from both populations. Most recently, Seoul rejected Tokyo’s referral of the case to the International Court of Justice for arbitration. The situation now threatens to permanently undo years of progress towards closer cooperation between the two countries – Washington’s two key allies in the region and a joint controlling presence against North Korea.
This summer marked the first time in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) 45-year history that it failed to issue a communiqué after its annual summit. It was hoped that a final document would be produced calling for a binding code of conduct to be established for all nations in the South China Sea. Although ASEAN foreign ministers later produced a six-point statement of principles on resolving disputes, it is widely believed that China put enormous pressure on Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chair, to block any final communiqué that would have affected Beijing’s ability to resolve its South China Sea claims to its satisfaction. These suspicions were seemingly confirmed when Cambodia received another large Chinese aid package this month.
ASEAN’s failure is indicative of two things. First, Beijing continues to wield tremendous influence in the region. ASEAN members without a direct stake in the South China Sea dispute are unwilling to allow themselves to be painted with the same brush, lest they risk their (mostly economic) relationships with China. Second, the preference for individual negotiation rather than Sino-ASEAN diplomacy seems to indicate that ASEAN members do not see ASEAN as taking an active role in regional stability, despite growing regional economic integration and cultural exchange. Similarly, non-claimant members do not want to see the association hijacked by claimant members in a bid to strengthen their own negotiating power. This leaves a vacuum for Beijing to exploit – much to the dismay of other claimants.
For its part, Washington worries over ASEAN’s effectiveness as a regional balancer to China. The strategic criticality of the South China Sea and its sea lanes means the US – and indeed, the world – has a close eye on the association’s ability to manage its own backyard. Should ASEAN be perceived to be unable or incapable of that task, its importance as a major regional organization will be severely diminished. Worse, without ASEAN at the centre of a future Asia-Pacific regional security framework, Washington will see no choice but to boost its own presence, bringing with it further consequences of its own.
Next time – the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific.