Red-hot Tensions In East China Sea Thrust Sino-Japanese Relations Onto World Stage Part 2
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two part series. Part 1 was posted on October 9th.
By Tim Daiss
Despite the argument from some experts and even China and Japan themselves that the recent East China Sea dispute is not over hydrocarbons, the facts as well as the actions of both countries dictate otherwise.
China, the world’s second largest economy, largest global energy consumer and second largest net oil importer is an energy thirsty Asian super power that must have hydrocarbons to fuel its economic machine. The country’s aggressive hydrocarbon quest in other parts of the world, including Africa, the Middle East and Latin American proves this point.
Though China has some own hydrocarbon resources she is unable to come close to meeting her own energy needs. Japan, on the other hand, is virtually hydrocarbon anemic. With virtually no oil and gas reserves of her own, despite being the world’s third largest economy, the third largest net importer of crude oil and the largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), she has to seek energy supply anywhere she can and simply can’t give up her claims in the oil and gas rich East China Sea.
“When China claimed the islands officially in 1971, it was about oil,” Keio University Professor Yoshihide Soeya told Energy Tribune. “Since then, the islands have become an important part of Chinese preoccupation with the question of sovereignty and territorial integrity as ‘core national interests’ as well as a symbol of China’s ‘anti-Japanese’ nationalism,” he said.
Peking University professor Hua Han disagrees.
“Disputes over Diaoyu are not new – not coming out of the new found oil reserves. Yet, the finding of oil intensifies [the dispute] and makes it difficult to resolve,” Hua told Energy Tribune.
Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy factored in other aspects contributing to the row.
“The extent of hydrocarbons is unknown,” he told Energy Tribune. “Potential energy resources are one aspect. The Senkaku/Diaoyu form part of an island chain blocking China’s access to the Western Pacific. They are located near shipping lanes. Fisheries are also important.”
However Peking University’s Zha Daojiong was the most vehement.
“The oil/gas argument is shallow. PRC and Japan began to deal with each other over maritime boundaries involving the islands ‘formally’ around 1982, when the UN Law of the Sea was passed. Prior to 1982, oil/gas companies were drilling in the same waters, literally back to back,” he said.
He added that the talk of hydrocarbon potential, based on a 1969 [United Nations] study was “done in a shoddy manner” and that “even estimates posted on the US government’s energy department’s website [EIA] is guesswork.
While academics differ on the role that hydrocarbons play in the recent row over DSI, Chinese nationalism, stoked over the issue and red-hot, keeps both Beijing and Tokyo busy as the drama unfolds.
It appears that blood ties among most Chinese, despite political affiliation, is infectious, adding yet another variable in the DSI equation.
In a rare and surprising show of solidarity PRC (People’s Republic of China) and ROC (Republic of China: Taiwan) flags fluttered in the breeze together as Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese protestors joined forces at an anti-Japanese rally in New York two weeks ago. Not to be outdone, on September 15 an estimated 5,000 Hong Kong Chinese in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory took to the streets in protest in a show of solidarity with Beijing’s claim against Japan.
But Taiwan has upped the ante even more. The tiny island nation that China considers belligerent, unless she is unified with the Mainland and that typically has good relations with Japan, has sent ships to DSI to support Chinese vessels on several occasions, confronting the well-armed Japanese Coast Guard.
Last week video footage of Japanese ships firing water cannon to turn away 40 Taiwan fishing boats and 12 Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels were quickly posted on news sites around the world. Six Chinese patrol vessels were also near the islands but four left.
“I am not surprised by the fact that the Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese join together in anti-Japanese protests,” Hua said. He said that he foresaw that the Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese would collaborate over the South China Sea and East China Sea.
“The same legacies – history, culture as well as blood — bind the Chinese together, even though they are living in different political entities and regimes and Hong Kong Chinese and Taiwanese may not like the political system in the mainland,” Hua said.
The Chinese (Taiwanese, Hong Kongese and Mainland Chinese) are all sensitive to sovereignty as well as history, he added.
Zha said that the pan-Chinese demonstrations this year are arguably unprecedented. He added however that Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US took to the streets back in 1971 over DSI when Taiwanese students studying in the US heard news about pending plans that the US was going to turn the islands over to Japan the next year in the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.
He added: “In 1996 when Japanese right wing groups put up a light house in the island, again Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese took to the streets. The government in Beijing was accused of being too soft to Japan.”
Soeya for his part counters both Hua and Zha’s view, offering a more sobering analysis from the Japanese perspective. He said that the phenomenon is temporary, adding however that psychologically the bond will remain for a long time.
Thayer said that there are many sources of Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment is among the most virulent.
“The greater Chinese community is very diverse,” he said. “Not all Hong Kong residents are anti-Beijing, pro-Beijing citizens are likely to support Beijing’s territorial claims. There is also pro-Japan sentiment in Taiwan among a plurality of the population. But there is also a traditional nationalism among the old guard. Overseas Taiwanese may be motivated by glories of China’s past, they would prefer to see Taiwan have a more independent stance internationally. A momentary flare up over territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu is not sufficient to bring these diverse communities together in a long-lasting coalition.”
Some experts believe that Japan has little choice but to stand up to China’s expanding power, pointing to a September 2010 incident that they claim made Japan look week. Back then a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol ships in the vicinity of DSI. Large Chinese protests followed, and harsh words poured out from Beijing. China arrested four Japanese citizens the next month along with the surprising discontinuation of rare earth exports to Japan for two months — Beijing wielding its economic muscle, something it is doing over the recent standoff with the Philippines in the South China Sea. Japan then suddenly released the detained Chinese captain of the trawler after a 17-day arrest, in what many claim was loss of face for the Japanese.
The US position on the row is a thorny one for Washington. If pushed into a corner, she must support Japan who is one of her closest allies as well as honoring the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty, which includes DSI. Washington however emphasizes that it does not take a position in the ultimate sovereignty of the islands.
Three weeks ago US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Asia-Pacific countries must resolve territorial disputes peacefully as prolonged disagreement in the part of the world could escalate to acts of violence and potentially far reaching conflict.
In light of what is at stake, particularly potential oil and gas reserves, could the DSI dispute spiral out of control, leading to a shooting war? While no one knows for sure, none of the four academics we spoke to thought that the standoff could lead to armed confrontation. In fact they all agreed that too much was at stake for both countries for things to spin out of control.
Professor Soeya stated however that the Chinese goal is to continue to pressure Japan just like it has been doing toward Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea, something he described as “a very Chinese way.” He added that tensions will remain for a very long time, because it is not likely that the Japanese will give into Chinese pressures like the Philippines did recently [in the South China Sea].
Edward Luttwak, a senior associate for the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington and a consultant to the Pentagon sheds light on the situation. He writes: “They (the Chinese) have been imbecilic enough to relaunch territorial quarrels with Japan, Vietnam and India more or less on the same day, when those three countries have more people, more money and more technology than China.”
In the final analysis it appears that China could be biting off more than she can chew. Their aggressive foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region (against the Philippines in the South China Sea, and Vietnam (with Indian hydrocarbon interests in Vietnam) in the South China Sea, as well as occasional flare-ups with India along a disputed border and also against Japan (a staunch US ally) in the East China Sea — may backfire. As these Asian neighbors are pushed into a corner they will likely form alliances with other antagonized neighbors, bruised from China’s force and push back against the Middle Kingdom.
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