Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

US Policy Options for the Territorial Disputes in East Asia

Oct 06 , 2012
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Just recently, the Japanese government moved to purchase the Diaoyu Islands – China’s inherent territory in the East China Sea. Directed by the Noda administration in collaboration with right-wing politicians, this farce has not only intensified territorial disputes in East Asia, but also posed an immediate threat to peace and prosperity in this region.

Almost all countries in East Asia, big or small, have become involved in territorial disputes, such as those between Japan and Russia, between Japan and South Korea, between South and North Korea, between China and Japan, between the countries washed by the South China Sea, between Thailand and Cambodia, and between Malaysia and Singapore. What is more, none of these disputes are easy to settle. Since what is at issue is their sovereignty and national sentiment and dignity, none of the disputing parties will make easy concessions or readily come to accommodations. As a result, how to handle territorial disputes has long remained a stern challenge to all countries in East Asia.

However, history shows these countries can successfully work together. In 1972 and 1978, for instance, the then Chinese and Japanese leaders agreed to leave their disputes over the Diaoyu Islands for settlement in the future, a decision that has kept Northeast Asia in stability for 40 years. Today, however, Japan has unilaterally breached this agreement, triggering hostility between the two countries and plunging Northeast Asia into great turbulence.

As a solution to the South China Sea issue, China worked out the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) with the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2002, setting the right direction for settling their disputes in the South China Sea. The DOC stresses that all territorial and jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea shall be settled through peaceful means, and that pending the settlement of a dispute, the parties concerned shall exercise self-restraint, shelve the dispute, and seek common development of the disputed area. Ever since the conclusion of the DOC, China has faithfully exercised self-restrain, neither sinking a single well nor building a single airport in any of the disputed areas. Some other parties to the DOC, however, have made big inroads into the South China Sea, with Vietnam being the most noticeable example. In 2004 and 2005, it built airports on Spratly Island and Truong Sa Lon Island respectively, and has ever since carried a large number of personnel, equipment, and ammunition into the Nansha Islands. Since 1978, it has also concluded prospecting and development contracts with scores of oil companies from Japan, Russia, the United States, France, Britain, India and others, offering more than 120 blocks across Chinese territorial waters around the Nansha and the Xisha Islands for tenders and turning oil and gas exploitation into a pillar of its economy. Other countries like Malaysia and the Philippines have also made inroads. As a matter of fact, the South China Sea has become an arena for the bullying of the big by the small over the past decade, with China falling the victim.

The US’ eastward shift of its strategic focus has tremendously changed the political ecology of East Asia and stirred up one wave after another on the East Asian seas that have remained comparatively quiet before. The territorial disputes between East Asian countries, in particular, have been exploited by the United States as a major tool to tighten ties with its allies and weave a network of military partnership for containing China. For all its declarations of neutrality, the US’ actual stand of preference is only too clear for the world eye.

Firstly, the United States has been self-contradictory in its stand. Routinely, it has claimed not to take a stand regarding the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands. At the same time, it has reiterated the applicability of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan concerning the Senkaku Islands. In other words, the US would still regard the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan as applicable to the Diaoyu Islands, even if it questions the actual sovereignty of these islands. Obviously, the United States is trying to bolster and support the Japanese right-wingers and the Noda administration in their farcical purchase of the Diaoyu Islands.

Secondly, the United States has taken actual actions to support Japan, the Philippines and some other claimants. Since the fallout between China and Japan over territorial issues, the United States has not only tilted toward Japan in words, but also stepped up its ‘security cooperation’ maneuvers and show of force in the East China Sea. Its Marine Corps, for instance, has joined the Japanese Self-Defense Force in a joint month-long exercise of island-targeted operations in the East China Sea, a first in their joint exercises. At a time when Japan repeatedly commits provocative acts over the Diaoyu Islands to intensify Sino-Japanese frictions over territorial issues, it is obvious to all whom the US is targeting by joining forces with Japan to conduct large-scale military exercises..

Another example is the US’ attitude toward China’s disputes with the Philippines over some islets and reefs in the South China Sea. Superficially, it has refused to take a stand. Recently, however, it has noticeably stepped up cooperation with the Philippines in joint military exercises designed to ‘react against marine threats.’ With support from the United States, the Philippines has been going all out to strengthen its naval reconnaissance and maritime law enforcement abilities, with its spearhead directing at the waters around the Huangyan Islet in the South China Sea.

Lastly, the United States has reacted differently at developments of a similar character. When the Vietnamese parliament passed the Maritime Law of Vietnam in June this year to bring China’s Xishan and Nansha islands under its jurisdiction, China reacted by announcing the establishment of Sansha City to strengthen its control, development and protection of its islands, reefs and territorial waters in the South China Sea. The United States harshly denounced China for the normal action, but did not breathe a single word about the Vietnamese act, fully revealing its preference.

Needless to say, the US factor has fueled the current intensification of territorial disputes in East Asia. Apart from taking sides with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others, the United States has also provided these countries with advanced armament or joined forces with them to conduct military exercises targeting China, claiming neutral in words but adding fuel to the flames in deeds. It is precisely against such an overall background that some countries have tried to inflame their national sentiment or take extreme steps to constantly intensify the already tense situation, with some emboldening themselves with external forces to provoke against China time and again and some stepping up arms expansion and war preparation for territorial expansion under the strategy of inch-by-inch encroachment, only to constantly exacerbate the tension in East Asia originating from territorial disputes.

With close ties and extensive interests in East Asian countries, the United States is highly dependent on this region, a situation that can well be turned into an opportunity for cooperation and a driving force for development. China respects the justified presence and interest of the United States in this region, and welcomes all construction contributions from it.

What is constructive contribution, then? So far as territorial disputes are concerned, “The United States at this point probably should not be in the lead, but it should voice strong support for this sort of process, offer technical support, and return to the principle of evenhandedness,” as Douglas Paal has pointed out.

Paal has been absolutely right. When US Secretary of State Hillary visited Indonesia, however, she brazenly tried to fix a timetable for the finalization of the Codes of Conduct in the South China Sea, saying that she hoped to see some substantial progress from China and the ASEA before the East Asian summit in November. She was trying to order the East Asian nations about as their supreme commander. But she was totally wrong.

When it comes to the territorial disputes in East Asia, the United States has two options: strict adherence to the principle of neutrality and impartiality and top precaution in both words and deeds, as it did during the row between Japan and South Korea over the Dok Island (Takeshima Island as known in Japan) – low profile and impartiality; or taking sides, adding fuel to the fire, or saying one thing and doing another. Different options will lead to different results, of course, with the first option to bring about lasting peace and prosperity in East Asia and the second one to intensify and perpetuate tension in this region. Which one, then? It is now high time for the US to ponder and decide.

Wu Zhenglong, Research Fellow of China Foundation For International Studies.

You might also like
Back to Top