Will America's Next War Be in the Pacific?
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Far more is, of course, at stake than just the ownership of a few uninhabited islets. The seabeds surrounding them are believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Ownership of the islands would naturally confer ownership of the reserves — something all of these countries desperately desire. Powerful forces of nationalism are also at work: with rising popular fervor, the Chinese believe that the islands are part of their national territory and any other claims represent a direct assault on China’s sovereign rights; the fact that Japan — China’s brutal invader and occupier during World War II — is a rival claimant to some of them only adds a powerful tinge of victimhood to Chinese nationalism and intransigence on the issue. By the same token, the Japanese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos, already feeling threatened by China’s growing wealth and power, believe no less firmly that not bending on the island disputes is an essential expression of their nationhood.
Long ongoing, these disputes have escalated recently. In May 2011, for instance, the Vietnamese reported that Chinese warships were harassing oil-exploration vessels operated by the state-owned energy company PetroVietnam in the South China Sea. In two instances, Vietnamese authorities claimed, cables attached to underwater survey equipment were purposely slashed. In April 2012, armed Chinese marine surveillance ships blocked efforts by Filipino vessels to inspect Chinese boats suspected of illegally fishing off Scarborough Shoal, an islet in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.
The East China Sea has similarly witnessed tense encounters of late. Last September, for example, Japanese authorities arrested 14 Chinese citizens who had attempted to land on one of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to press their country’s claims, provoking widespread anti-Japanese protests across China and a series of naval show-of-force operations by both sides in the disputed waters.
Regional diplomacy, that classic way of settling disputes in a peaceful manner, has been under growing strain recently thanks to these maritime disputes and the accompanying military encounters. In July 2012, at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asian leaders were unable to agree on a final communiqué, no matter how anodyne — the first time that had happened in the organization’s 46-year history. Reportedly, consensus on a final document was thwarted when Cambodia, a close ally of China’s, refused to endorse compromise language on a proposed “code of conduct” for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Two months later, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing in an attempt to promote negotiations on the disputes, she was reviled in the Chinese press, while officials there refused to cede any ground at all.
As 2012 ended and the New Year began, the situation only deteriorated. On December 1st, officials in Hainan Province, which administers the Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, announced a new policy for 2013: Chinese warships would now be empowered to stop, search, or simply repel foreign ships that entered the claimed waters and were suspected of conducting illegal activities ranging, assumedly, from fishing to oil drilling. This move coincided with an increase in the size and frequency of Chinese naval deployments in the disputed areas.
On December 13th, the Japanese military scrambled F-15 fighter jets when a Chinese marine surveillance plane flew into airspace near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Another worrisome incident occurred on January 8th, when four Chinese surveillance ships entered Japanese-controlled waters around those islands for 13 hours. Two days later, Japanese fighter jets were again scrambled when a Chinese surveillance plane returned to the islands. Chinese fighters then came in pursuit, the first time supersonic jets from both sides flew over the disputed area. The Chinese clearly have little intention of backing down, having indicated that they will increase their air and naval deployments in the area, just as the Japanese are doing.