Saturday, November 1, 2014
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Overcoming East Asia’s Sovereignty Disputes

BRUSSELS – China’s recent elevation of its claim to the Diaoyu Islands to a “core interest” has made the prospect of resolving its sovereignty dispute with Japan, which governs the islands, even trickier. Indeed, the recent publication by the official People’s Daily of two Chinese scholars’ commentary questioning Japan’s sovereignty over even Okinawa suggests that the authorities have scant interest in ending the dispute anytime soon. So, with China hardening its multiple sovereignty claims throughout the South and East China Seas, can any mechanism be found to resolve these conflicts peacefully?

Disputes over territorial sovereignty are, perhaps, the thorniest of all diplomatic disagreements. They can seem intractable, because they are directly connected not only to national pride, but also to national security.

So it is no surprise that governments are usually reluctant to take even the smallest steps toward resolving such disputes. They fear not only domestic political backlash, but also the prospect that their adversary, or adversaries, will interpret a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, and thus become even more demanding.

The ongoing sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas – involving China, Taiwan, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia – are particularly poisonous, because they also carry a heavy burden of historical grievance.

Koreans perceive in their dispute with Japan an echo of their country’s long and bitter occupation by Imperial Japan. China associates its South and East China Sea claims with the darkest period in its history – the “century of humiliation,” when foreign powers severely impinged upon its territorial integrity. Today, China’s extraordinarily rapid economic and political rise has disposed both its government and public to seek to redress old wounds from that period, and not to offer anything in exchange along the way.

But, in today’s Asia, these countries’ behavior with respect to their sovereignty disputes, and how they respond to others’ actions (and inaction) will have a decisive impact on regional security and prosperity. Indeed, these disputes may prove to be a litmus test of China’s sincerity regarding its commitment to a “peaceful” global rise.

Unless China demonstrates that it can live peacefully with its neighbors, its government’s claim that the international community has nothing to fear from the country’s growing power will be doubted. And the United States’ dexterity in addressing these disputes will help to determine whether America’s strategic “pivot to Asia” contributes to forging a regional security order that is acceptable to an increasingly assertive China.

Because bilateral talks run too great a risk of “lost face,” multilateral discussions probably offer the best prospect for resolution of East Asia’s sovereignty disputes. The problem is that China not only is unaccustomed to multilateral procedures, but that it recoils from them. China’s history has not prepared it to work within such a framework, and its yearning for status – even more pronounced now than when it was impoverished – will make it difficult to gain Chinese acceptance of a multilateral solution.

As a result, China, which is particularly concerned to keep the US out of the negotiations, prefers to pursue bilateral talks, knowing full well that such an approach will invariably create a zero-sum game in which one side can be portrayed as protecting its national interest, and the other as having betrayed it. China will need considerable convincing if it is to participate in a framework of regional policy consultation, coordination, and compromise aimed at muting the tensions over sovereignty disputes. But, unless China is brought into such a framework, its sense of isolation will grow, as will the temptation to define its interests in ways that are irreconcilable with those of its neighbors.

Not surprisingly, given its own structures, the European Union prefers the multilateral approach. Since 1995, when China occupied Mischief Reef, a maritime feature claimed by the Philippines, the EU has encouraged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to strengthen its code of conduct for the region.

Even to begin to talk about a regional solution to East Asia’s sovereignty disputes, however, requires preparing the ground. The first step must be to reduce diplomatic tensions. Fortunately, this appears to be taking place. Having gone to the brink, the leaders of both China and Japan appear to have taken a direct hand in softening their countries’ rhetoric.

But no one should think that this lowering of the temperature is permanent. Other steps are needed to create habits of civil diplomacy around hot-button territorial claims.

Here, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” which calls on all parties to refrain from antagonistic behavior, resolve disputes through peaceful means, and establish a code of conduct for cooperation in the East China Sea, is a clear step forward. While Taiwan’s sovereignty dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands by the Japanese) – involves non-negotiable claims, the resources surrounding the islands can nevertheless be shared, nurturing habits of closer regional cooperation in the process.

Ma’s constructive approach to reducing tensions in the region would benefit all parties concerned. Although adversaries may not reach agreement in the short term on the issue of sovereignty, they should be able to find a formula that allows them to share the resources, natural or otherwise, of the islands and the nearby waters.

Europe experienced something similar with the sharing of resources in the North Sea. Japan and Taiwan have already started along a parallel road in their joint fisheries talks. It is now time for China and Japan, the region’s two paramount economies, to put their people’s prosperity and security first in the interest of successful shared development.

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  1. CommentedPeter Anderson

    It is not an easy problem to solve, primarily because the perceptions of Chinese nationalists are increasingly a factor in popular support for the Communist Party (just as ultimately Boxer nationalism was ultimately turned into support of Qing against the Europeans in 1900). It is natural for leaders of a large community to think that it is the only community which matters, but China needs to educate itself and its leaders to see itself with a little more historical accuracy if it genuinely wants to lead the world in a real harmony. Without the West's lead in education, science, industry, investment, and governance, would China's economy be anywhere near where it is now? Realistically, China would have remained as it was without the advent of European modernism. Ironically, even the Maoist propaganda which united Chinese masses depended upon an imperialist opponent once China's imperialism had been dismantled. If Europe hadn't been expanding would the Communists even have had a reason to remain united after overthrowing Qing? It sometimes seems that educators in China might be telling its leaders deceptively that all good things originated historically within its own borders, and that global harmony is therefore equivalent to submitting to China's decision and perception. That provides the CCP with the support backing its imperial approach to regional sovereignty.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I have a diffrent view. China has been hitting Japan and Japan has been taking China's punches without trying to hit a punch back. It has served no other purpose than to make China still bolder and think that it can get away with that.

    Prime Minister Abe must have come to realize that the Japanese China-policy has been counter-productive and thought it pertinent to give back some punches so that China will learn how it feels to be punched.

    Abe's new policy seems to have had some good effects, because the two Chinese scholars' commentary is a sign of the Chinese irritant cry of ouch. The Chinese respond that way.

    Mr. Tannock misread Japan's granting of the fishing rights to Taiwanese boats around the Senkaku Isles. He should know why Japan did not give the same rights to China.

    The South Korean perception in their dispute with Japan is another failure of Mr. Tannock's. The Korean-Japanese relations would be much the same as they are without Japan's annexation in 1910.

    I shall be pleased if Mr. Tannock or anyone who happens to be reading this comment of mine will spare a few minutes for reading my comments to the Project-Syndicate's "Han-Seung, Heeding History in East Asia, Nov.20, 2012," "Gareth Evans, Japan and the Politics of Guilt, Jan.30, 2013," and "Ian Buruma, East Asia's Nationalist Fantasy Islands, Sep. 7, 2012."

  3. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    This set of issues is about the resurgence of China. It is about one bilateral relationship; that between China and the USA.

    Each individual event is a test of the degree to which China's neighbours can rely on American support.

    China is collecting data. So are it's neighbours.

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