Remaining Neutral in the South China Sea

Written by Roxanne Bauer, Editor- in- Chief

The conflict between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea is escalating. Japan purchased the islands, which were previously leased by the government from a Japanese family, for $26.18 million, stimulating Chinese reaction that ranges from protests to diplomatic calls for restraint.  The foreign ministry of China has stated they view the purchase to be “illegal and invalid.”   The row between the two countries became even more serious last Wednesday after Tokyo detained 14 Chinese activists who, the Japanese claim, made “illegal entry” in the islands.  China, in turn, responded by dispatching vessels to the disputed territory to carry out patrols and to underscore its claim tothe islands.

Domestically, the issue has also become more volatile as protestors in China attacked Japanese firms, including Panasonic and Canon, which have since closed production in some of their facilities.  Japanese attempts to frame the purchase as a routine real-estate acquisition have been unsuccessful and have not resonated with the Chinese public which considers the islands as part of their territory since “ancient times.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will meet with Chinese officials beginning today following negotiations with Japan to put a second missile defense radar system in that country. Speaking at a press conference in Japan, he maintained that, “It’s in everybody’s interest for Japan and China to maintain good relations and to find a way to avoid further escalation.”

However, there is a more political aspect to these disputes.  When China challenges Japan, even over something as insignificant as uninhabited islands, it is also challenging U.S. interests in the region and is sending a signal to the U.S. that it will not be contained.  Recent U.S. foreign policy in the region has meant the expansion of its military presence in East Asia and the Pacific. China may be reacting to Japan’s actions in light of this.  The Obama administration is establishing closer defense ties to countries near China, such as India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore.  Additionally, the U.S. has launched a new defense task force with the Australian government  and is looking into the idea of resuming Navy warship visits to New Zealand for the first time since 1984.  U.S. Officials maintain that they are “rebalancing” forces around the globe now that U.S. troops have left Iraq and are withdrawing from Afghanistan.  They say the shift is not aimed specifically at China but in repositioning U.S. defense threats, including taking North Korea more seriously.

There is also an economic component these conflicts underscores the importance of finite resources. The coastal passages in the South China Sea are crucially important to all who use the passages to ship goods.  More than $1.2 trillion annually are ferried between the U.S. and Asian trading partners.  Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of US Pacific Command stated earlier this month at a joint appearance at a 15-member Pacific Island Forum in the Cook Islands that, “Five trillion dollars of commerce rides on the (Asia-Pacific) sea lanes each year… We will enhance the US Navy and coastguard Ship Rider program so that we can more effectively combat the illegal activity and enforce conservation measures and build nation capacity to do the same.” Secretary of State Clinton also attended the Forum and said the expanded patrols would have significant benefits.

There is no obvious opportunity for U.S .public diplomacy efforts on this subject.  The U.S. can consult with China on resource management, but any attempt by the U.S. Government to affect the outcome of territorial disputes will most likely be perceived as partisan.  Secretary Panetta’s position that the U.S. does not take sides on such matters is a smart one. Remaining as impartial as possible is sometimes the best strategy to pursue.

Public diplomacy is about what we say and do and also about what we avoid. Fishing reserves will become more important as coastal stocks are depleted, making it more essential that our trading partners can access important marine areas.   The channels can also be used to intimidate others by cutting off trade, giving those who control water passages leverage over their neighbors.  Finally, the unilateral surveys of fossil fuel resources in the region create insecurity and tensions, increasing the likelihood of aggression. Public diplomacy efforts, in this case, should be aimed at pursuing dialogue and the ideals of transparency so that trade and defense activities can continue.

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One Response to Remaining Neutral in the South China Sea

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