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How to calm China’s ambitions in the China seas

Commentary: US must abandon its passive policy and encourage negotiations.
South china sea 2012 09 06Enlarge
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi listens during a joint press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 5, 2012. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON, UK — To make a real breakthrough, Washington needs to synchronize its different strategies in the boiling waters of both the South China Sea and East China Sea.

The tension over territory disputes between China and neighboring countries has escalated in recent months. After the naval standoff with the Philippines around the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, China’s move to establish Sansha City on Woody Island in the Paracels chain sparked protests in Vietnam and drew concerns among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Meanwhile, triggered by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s proposal to purchase disputed islands in the East China Sea, radical nationalists from China, Taiwan and Japan have repeatedly tried to land on islands to claim sovereignty, stirring regional stability.

The United States has taken different strategies dealing with the same opponent: China.

In the South China Sea, Washington has played a proactive role, encouraging countries claiming territories in the Paracel and Spratly island chains to return to the negotiating table in search of a peaceful resolution, while denouncing Beijing’s “divide and conquer” strategy that favors bilateral dialogues rather than a multilateral framework. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Indonesia earlier this week to urge Southeast Asian countries to present a unified front in dealing with Beijing.

However, Beijing is reluctant to bring this territorial issue to international arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. A likely outcome of such arbitration would undermine China’s legitimacy of dominance over the disputed waters. Clinton apparently did not succeed in narrowing the gap between the two superpowers in what may have been her last trip to China as secretary of state.

In contrast, in the East China Sea — which is bounded by Kyūshū and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, Taiwan, and mainland China and the Asian continent, and is connected with the South China Sea by the Taiwan Strait — Washington has so far taken a passive position, looking on with folded arms. Clinton did not mention this topic to her Chinese counterparts this time.

Japan’s immediate deportation of 14 Hong Kong activists who landed on uninhabited islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan and China last month has contributed to the rising tension. In Beijing, dozens of people, driven by nationalist anger, rallied outside the Japanese embassy, demanding the protesters’ release and chanting anti-Japanese slogans. The activists have also won overwhelming support online, and Chinese consumers have started boycotting Japanese products, according to The Washington Post.

In Hong Kong, supporters marched to a Japanese consulate building, demanding the activists’ immediate release. Some of the participants burned Japanese flags. Taiwanese government has summoned the Japanese envoy to issue a formal protest. Later this week, President Ma Ying-jeou will visit a nearby island under Taiwan’s control to assert sovereignty. If this pattern continues, no one can predict what troubles may follow; a small-scale military conflict was one mentioned recently in The Post.

The challenges of this dual front approach are open to public and press scrutiny; even if Washington is making the right decision in the South China Sea, it could be making a big mistake in the east.

With respect to issues of sovereignty, Beijing’s leaders cannot find any persuasive reasons to collaborate with their Washington counterparts, who — in their eyes — have tried to warn of “China threats” as a way to stop China’s naval expansion in adjacent waters. Secretary Clinton’s failure in mediating among the ASEAN countries has not resulted in a confrontation between the US and China, but if she continues to turn her back to the East Asian countries, such a confrontation might occur.

Meanwhile, the Japanese central government is planning to pay a private owner of disputed islands ¥2 billion ($26 million) to purchase them in late September. It seems increasingly apparent that Washington must abandon its passive policy in the East China Sea before it is too late. The best strategy could be taking a similar approach to encourage Japan, China and Taiwan back to the negotiation table to shelve controversies, agree on a common code of conduct and establish a multilateral mechanism for the joint exploration and development of natural resources. This is why Taiwan’s recent proposal of a peace initiative with the same targets matters to the US. By echoing this proposal, to which Tokyo also holds an open mind, Washington may get even better leverage to urge Beijing to behave and cooperate with neighboring countries in tackling sovereignty disputes.

After all, such a peaceful resolution offers the only graceful way for all parties to step back from this embarrassing diplomatic impasse. It is also the best opportunity that Washington has to defuse the most likely flashpoint in the East China Sea, which is naturally in the greatest national interest of the United States.

Charles I-hsin Chen is former spokesman and current vice director for the overseas department of the ruling Kuomintang party in Taiwan. His commentaries and letters are regularly seen in Taiwan and foreign newspapers. He is currently a doctoral student in economics in London.

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