Thursday, September 27, 2012

China and Japan Territorial Dispute in East China Sea: a Flash Point in the Pacific

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The uninhabited islets of East China Sea are another flash point east of the Pacific Ocean. China, Japan and Taiwan are involved in dispute over conflicting claims on chain of islands called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese.  China also claims ownership and sovereignty over Spratly’s group of islands at the South China Sea which is also contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

Early in August 2012, a group of 14 residents from Hong Kong and mainland China travelled by fishing boat and landed in one of the islands at Diaoyu. Japanese authorities then arrested and deported them. Later, a group of Japanese activists on a flotilla of 150 people went to the Japanese controlled Diaoyu group of islands. Ten of them swam ashore and raised the Japanese flag on one of the Islands on August 19. 2012. Although that move was not sanctioned by the Japanese government, it nevertheless sparked a nationwide protest in China.

The tense situation came to a head when Japan announced that it bought some of the islands at Diaoyu from their private owner at 26 million dollars. This infuriated China and President Hu Jintao warned that the move was invalid and illegal. In relation to the Japanese action, the Chinese took to the streets in the cities of Guanzhou, Wenzhou, Shanghai and other cities, and attacked some Japanese-owned business establishments. The protesters also threatened to boycott Japanese-made products and establishments. The situation forced the Japanese companies such as Panasonic, Toyota and others to temporarily suspend their operations.  

Taiwan joined the fray by sending 50 fishing vessels escorted by patrol ships to Diaoyu Islands. They were intercepted by Japanese coast guard ships which fired water cannon into the vessels. The Taiwanese patrol ships retaliated by also firing their water cannon into the Japanese ships. It was fortunate that the drama ended with neither side firing real ammunition.

Lately, China bought from Ukraine and put into service its first ever aircraft carrier joining the exclusive clubs of ten countries with active aircraft carriers. Christened Liaoning, the aircraft carrier can hold 30 fixed wing fighters which is way below the capacity of the much larger Nimitz class aircraft carrier of the US that can carry around 90 aircrafts. China is adding to its fleet six more aircraft carriers that are still in the process of construction.  From all indications, China aims to become the most dominant military power in the region.

Engaging in armed confrontation with Japan and even with the weaker countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines is not the best way for China to project itself as an emerging world power because it owes its prosperity with its trading with the west, Japan and other countries that are allied to the United States. Moreover, Japan like the Philippines has an outstanding mutual defense treaty with the United States. The treaties call for mutual military assistance in the event of an attack by another country. The United States confirmed that the islands disputed by Japan and China are covered by its security treaty with Japan.                                               

For China, Japan, unlike any other claimants of the disputed groups of island east of the Pacific is no pushover. Japan was once a world military power with a history of occupying China, and its economy at present is one of the largest and the strongest in the world. It is also one of the leading countries in the world with access to most advanced and sophisticated technologies that may include weapons. An armed confrontation between Japan and China may probably end in stalemate with Japan gaining the political advantage.

Despite their differences, Japan and China need each other to sustain their economic growth. China, a prosperous country with a very large population is a very big market for the Japanese to ignore. On the part of China, Japan is one of its largest trading partners.

Most of the Islands and islets in the disputed seas are barren.  However, the seas have great economic and strategic significance. The South and East China seas are trade route of about 5 trillion dollars worth of goods. They are a rich fishing area and are also believed to sit in huge deposits of oil and natural gas.

Barring substantial find of oil and natural gas deposits on or at the disputed group of islands; China, Japan, Taiwan and especially the weaker countries would not initiate move that would start a full blown war because their economic interest and well being would be adversely affected. Claimant countries may have a distrust or animosity to one another.  And isolated cases of armed clashes may arise from their dispute, but they may avoid resorting to war to settle their differences.

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