The parallels are obvious: schoolchildren in a playground, trading barbed comments, as others look on, hoping to keep out of the way. One kid responds to the escalating taunts and provocations of another, with a shove. It has the potential to get worse, much worse.
“You started it,” says one. Another replies, “If you don’t watch out, I am going to tell my big brother, and he’s going to beat you up.”
Alas, this is no everyday schoolyard tale, but an indicator of the level of rhetoric now characterizing the diplomacy – or the lack thereof – surrounding overlapping maritime, air, economic and other territorial claims off the coasts of China, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, among other nations.
Trouble is brewing in the East China and South China Seas – referred to in part by the Philippines as the West Philippines Seas – where an increasingly assertive China, is seen, fairly or not, by many of its neighbors as a schoolyard bully, taking by force – one “salami slice” of territory at a time – what it could not through diplomacy.
The stationing of a massive floating deep-water oil rig by China in waters also claimed by Vietnam has been the latest flashpoint as tensions continue to escalate. Riots flared in Vietnam against factories and other interests perceived as being linked to China, and video footage of what appears to be a massive Chinese ship ramming and sinking a much smaller Vietnamese fishing boat has now hit the Internet.
The last few weeks, let alone years, are no model for a way forward when it comes to dispute resolution.
Cases in point: In November of last year, China unilaterally announced an expanded air defense zone encompassing airspace that overlapped claims by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And in the last few weeks, Chinese military planes have come dangerously close to those of the United States and Japan. Moreover, China, Taiwan and Japan all claim the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese.
To the south, in an area that China claims is all its own, within a “nine-dash line” skirting the coasts of several Southeast Asian nation, Chinese ships now patrol a reef still claimed by and known by the Philippines as the Scarborough Shoal. This followed a clash between Chinese and Filipino forces at sea in 2012.
So far, China – in its rhetoric and its efforts to change the status quo – is losing the external public relations war even as its actions no doubt may play well at home amidst a slowing economy and growing concerns over pollution and corruption.
Does China risk becoming the Japan of some seven decades past, namely a rising nation that sparks conflict and then war under the guise of “Asia for Asians”?
Pointedly, at a recent Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a new “Asian Security concept,” which in essence called for Asian security to be left to Asians. China has indeed “stood up,” and a century of “humiliation” at the hands of western powers is long over, as China, the second largest economy in the world, resumes its rightful place in the world order.
Flash back to the 1930s and 1940s as imperial Japan’s propaganda machine exhorted Asians’ to control their own destinies and throw aside the yoke of western colonial rule. Asia for Asians was the mantra. And better yet, Japan’s leaders argued, come join Japan in a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” where all would benefit as Japan took its rightful leadership role in the region.
Well, we all know how well that played out, as Japan’s vision of Asia for Asians led that nation and much of the Asia-Pacific region down a path to destruction. From the ashes of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars that followed, a new paradigm evolved with the United States helping guarantee a Pacific peace that has allowed Asia to prosper and ironically China to rise. It is that defense status quo now being challenged by China even as the United States and Japan seek to reaffirm it.
At the Asia Security Summit held recently in Singapore, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both raised China’s ire with statements challenging China’s recent territorial moves.
The United States “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged,” Hagel said. “We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert [its] claims.” Abe, in his keynote address, announced Japan’s intention to play a greater role in regional security, in ensuring open skies and sea-lanes, and in supporting Southeast Asian nations in territorial disputes with China.
The potential for continued conflict remains.
Sadly, there is no third party – no respected principal on the school yard – to intervene, and in a face-saving move, make clear that all sides need to let cooler heads prevail. China should pull back its oil rig. ASEAN must work together now, and a clear code of conduct needs to be established in the South China Sea even as territorial claims remain unresolved. And every nation, Japan, China and the United States included, should treat each other with respect.
Back on the playground, one child may well declare, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” That only works though, if the other agrees that those are not “fighting words.”
China’s Chairman Mao Zedong once famously declared, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That is a lesson though that could well lead to ruin if applied by every nation with conflicting claims in the East and South China Seas.
With tensions mounting across the region’s fisheries, and potentially energy-rich waterways and encompassing airspace, it is time for all players to take a step back from the brink of even greater conflict and commit to engagement, cooperation and a peaceful resolution to disputes. This will be essential if this century is to be one of shared peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow Curtis on Twitter at @CurtisSChin