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As Tensions Escalate Between China and Japan, the US Plays Both Sides

A strengthened and more democratic United Nations is necessary to resolve these crises. The alternatives are the stuff of nightmares.

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Islands of Contention

Consider China’s claim on the Spratlys and the Paracels, two groups of islands in the South China Sea. The islands are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The countries with claims on the Spratlys and Paracels want to negotiate with China as a bloc, but Beijing insists on dealing with the dispute nation by nation. The standoff allowed the United States to jump in and offer to mediate the issue. From China’s point of view, the U.S. is using the dispute to inject itself into one of its “core” regions and pull Vietnam and others into an alliance against China. To the countries involved, China is being a bully, and if the United States wants to help out, that is fine by them.

There are other bones of contention in the region.

Future water supplies concern the Chinese. A major source of its water is the Himalayas, where glaciers are rapidly retreating in the face of climate change. Countries that border the mountain range are supposed to consult with one another, but China is busy building dams to corner much of the runoff.

There are historical tensions in the region as well. India lost a hefty slice of territory to China in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and, since 2005, Beijing has come to call Indian-controlled Arunachal Pradesh border area “South Tibet.” There are also reports that China is building up its military forces in this area. Although some rightist forces in India talk openly about it, an armed conflict with China seems unlikely. Nevertheless, the border dispute has effectively strengthened ties between New Delhi and Washington.

Taiwan is another “core” area. The United States is selling arms to Taiwan and holding joint naval exercises with Japan aimed at stopping a Chinese invasion of the island. However, recent polls in Taiwan indicate that its residents have little fear of an invasion, and Taiwan and China have even carried out joint search and rescue maneuvers. China accuses the Americans of stirring up trouble, but it is China’s refusal to take a possible invasion of Taiwan off the table that allows the United States to keep a foot in the door.

The United States and Japan view North Korea as an unstable and dangerous nuclear threat. From China’s point of view, the United States and its allies want North Korea to collapse, which would not only flood China with refugees, but put U.S. ally South Korea on China’s southern border.

A Way Out?

The United States is certainly trying to surround China with military forces and an alliance system hostile to what Beijing sees as its basic interests. China’s need for energy, water, and security has also led it to exert itself in ways it has not done in a very long time. For Japan and the United States, this assertiveness will take some getting used to.

But none of these tensions is insurmountable. U.S. armed forces in China’s backyard are a potential threat, but Chinese belligerence in places like the Spratlys and Tibet give the United States a rationale for maintaining its military power in Asia. Energy needs are global, and need not be turned into a competition.  Himalayan water is not just a problem for India and China, but Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia as well.

There are signs that the sides are trying to bank the fires. The Chinese agreed to re-establish military-to-military meetings with the United States, and Beijing and Tokyo made nice during the recent Asia-Europe summit in Brussels. At the same time, small anti-Japan protests have broken out in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The demonstrations are small and localized so far, but they wouldn’t likely continue without a wink and nod from the government.

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