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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.

On the face of it, it is hard to explain why a minor collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel this past August escalated to the point of Beijing and Tokyo nearly breaking off relations. But the incident mirrors policies that both nations see as vital to their self-interests. It is also connected to the aggressive U.S. push to defend its traditional power in the region.

The disputed ownership of the scatter of tiny islands in the East China Sea claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan -- the Senkakus to the Japanese, the Diaoyus to the Chinese -- is less about fish than the potential energy reserves that might lie beneath the reefs and atolls. But for more than 30 years both sides have largely avoided the kind of confrontation that took place August 7.

From the Japanese point of view, the incident reflects an increasing assertiveness by Beijing in the East and South China seas, areas that China describe as “core” regions for its security. From China’s point of view, the Japanese arrest of the Chinese captain of the fishing boat was a provocative act that reflects a growing hostility by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). And Beijing is certain that the Americans are behind it all.

In a sense, both sides are correct.

Encircling China

The DPJ was elected on a platform of improving relations with China, renegotiating a new American base agreement on Okinawa, and distancing itself from Japan’s umbilical linkage to U.S. policies. But the Obama administration torpedoed the new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, by refusing to compromise on the Okinawa base. When Hatoyama folded under the pressure and resigned, he was replaced by the far more pro-American Prime Minister Naoto Kan. From China’s point of view, Washington engineered a coup, marginalized the more independent-minded wing of the Democratic Party, and brought Japan back under the U.S. umbrella.

Adding insult to injury, the United States has scheduled joint American-Japanese naval maneuvers near the disputed islands and war games off Taiwan, the island province that China claims is part of its national territory. The United States recently concluded major naval war games with South Korea in the Yellow and South China seas, maneuvers that drew a sharp protest from Beijing.

“[The United States] is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and constantly challenging China’s core interests. Washington will inevitably pay a costly price for its muddled decision,” Rear Admiral Yang Yi wrote in the People’s Liberation Army Daily.

And yet Japan is correct that a powerful current of nationalism has made China increasingly ready to challenge the traditional balance of power in Asia. For the past century European powers and Japan routinely encroached on Chinese territory, slicing off provinces and exploiting China’s economic resources. China still nurses a grudge over Japan’s brutal 1931-45 invasion.

Historical humiliations do play a role in the current crisis. But if one thing drives China’s foreign policy, it is access to energy to fuel the country’s explosive industrialization. Much of the oil and gas that keeps China’s factories humming comes by sea, and Beijing is increasingly concerned about the delicacy of its energy jugular vein. Close off the Malacca Straits between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula and those factories go silent.

Therefore, when the United States and it allies Japan and South Korea carry out naval war games in the Indian Ocean and the waters near China, Beijing responds by beefing up its navy and vigorously defending what it considers its economic zone. These moves in turn give the United States an opportunity to build alliances in the region and keep its irons in the fire.

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