During his recent state visit to Vietnam, US President Barack Obama warned that “bigger nations should not bully smaller nations” and called for a peaceful solution to the territorial conflicts broiling in the Asia Pacific. In so doing, he was helping to set the stage for one of the central issues for the upcoming G7 summit.
Host-country Japan had already made it clear in April that it expects the summit to result in a statement on the security of sea navigation. The fuss over the topic is justified – behind it rests the strategic balance of a rapidly shifting Asia.
The rise of China has shaken the regional order that was set in place by the victorious powers of World War II and solidified during the Cold War. The country’s massive military buildup has especially worried its neighbors. Its defense budget has grown more than ten percent annually for over ten years.
And then the US was drawn in, as former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the country’s “pivot to Asia.” The new policy planned for a stronger diplomatic, economic and military engagement in the Asia Pacific, especially with its allies Japan and the Philippines. It aims, among other things, to assure America’s anxious partners in the region of its support.
Islands of contention
Much of the tension can be pinpointed to a number of disputed island territories. Japan and China, for example, are feuding over the Senkaku (or Diaoyutai, depending on which side you ask) Islands, which contain natural gas reserves as well as strategic importance. Both countries are also implicated in spats with South Korea over other islands.
In the South China Sea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are at loggerhreads with each other and with China over the Spratly Islands. These, too, have offer resource reserves – fish, oil and gas, especially – and a strategic position in the middle of one of the world’s most important sea routes.
The US has kept itself in the background of these conflicts, making no territorial claims for any of the disputed islands but wielding influence through its allies. It accuses China of threatening freedom of navigation and risking the outbreak of violence in the region with its militarization.
As of now, the battle is only taking place in court. The Philippines is seeking legal clarification with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over what it sees as China’s expansive aspirations in the South China Sea. China’s ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, made his country’s position on the matter clear in an opinion piece published earlier this month in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – it will “not accept, recognize or participate” in the trial. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.
A tangled mess
Altogether, the situation is a confusing entanglement of actors and demands, involving economic and security interests, the law of the sea and, dangerously, nationalist resentments.
“There are more than a dozen territorial conflicts in the region. The front lines are not very clear,” Enrico Fels, political scientist at the University of Bonn’s Center for Global Studies, told DW. China is indeed at the center of most of the conflicts, but it is conducting a number of different strategies depending on the country. “Basically it is trying to prevent a united front in the region from forming against it.”
The situation is even more unclear because the actors are often both strategic rivals and economic partners. According to information from the World Trade Organization, for example, China is Japans second-most important export market, behind the US. For its part, Japan is one of the top five destinations for Chinese goods.
Calming the waters
“There were clear fronts during the Cold War, and that of course lent the conflict a certain measure of stability and predictability,” political scientist Gerhard Will told DW. “What we are seeing now is a situation in which many more possibilities are in play. But these possibilities of course also entail fragility and misunderstandings – and therefore potentially conflict.”
A meeting of G7 foreign ministers stoked China’s ire when it criticized the country’s actions in the South China Sea
To calm the waters, Fels believes the involved nations must begin to “depoliticize the disputes and seek legal solutions.” But this as unlikely anytime soon, he believes, especially as China would view such an approach with skepticism.
That was made clear after G7 foreign ministers released a statement in April repeating repeated their tried and true position that the freedom of navigation is an important international value, that conflicts should be peacefully resolved, and that they are following the developments in the East and South China Seas with concern.
“This very cautious positioning of the G7 foreign ministers set off an enormous diplomatic reaction from China,” said Fels. Nonetheless, he thinks it is important that the G7 stands its ground. “It is absolutely right if the G7, in careful and admonishing words, push for a peaceful settlement of the conflicts.”