The Game of Zones, our term for the escalating multinational confrontations in the China Seas, are reaching the boiling point, with military encounters between China, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines occurring on a daily basis as a nuclear-armed North Korea watches from the sidelines.
The looming crisis is the result of the Asian Pivot, a strategy created by Barack Obama and his then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Five tears ago, Michael T. Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, dissected the Obama/Clinton Asian policy for The Nation:
The South China Sea has had increased prominence in Washington’s strategic calculus in recent years as China has asserted its interests there and as its importance as an economic arena has grown. Not only does the sea sit atop major oil and natural gas deposits—some being developed by US companies, including ExxonMobil—it also serves as the main route for ships traveling to and from Europe, Africa and the Middle East to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The Chinese say the South China Sea is part of their national maritime territory and that the oil and gas belongs to them; but Washington is insisting it will fight to preserve “freedom of navigation” there, at whatever cost. Whereas Taiwan once topped the list of US security challenges in the western Pacific, Hillary Clinton said on November 10 that “ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” is now Washington’s principal challenge.
Focusing on the South China Sea achieves several White House goals. It shifts the emphasis in US security planning from ideological determinism, as embedded in the increasingly unpopular drive to impose American values on the Middle East and fight a never-ending war against Islamist jihadism, to economic realism, as expressed through protecting overseas energy assets and maritime commerce. By dominating sea lanes the United States poses an implied threat of economic warfare against China in any altercations by cutting off its access to foreign markets and raw materials. And, through its very location, the South China Sea links US strategic interests in the Pacific to its interests in the Indian Ocean and to those of the rising powers of South Asia. According to Secretary Burns, a key objective of the administration’s strategy is to unite India with Japan, Australia and other members of the emerging anti-Chinese bloc.
Chinese officials following these developments must see them as a calculated US effort to encircle China with hostile alliances. How, exactly, Beijing will respond to this onslaught remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it will not be intimidated—resistance to foreign aggression lies at the bedrock of the national character and remains a key goal of the Chinese Communist Party, however attenuated by time. So blowback there will be.
Perhaps the White House believes that military competition will impede China’s economic growth and disguise US economic weaknesses. But this is folly: China has far greater economic clout than the United States. To enhance its position vis-à-vis China, America must first put its own house in order by reinvigorating its economy, reducing foreign debt, improving public education and eliminating unnecessary overseas military commitments.
Ultimately, what is most worrisome about the Obama administration’s strategic shift—which no doubt is dictated as much by domestic as foreign policy considerations, including the need to counter jingoistic appeals from GOP presidential candidates and to preserve high rates of military spending—is that it will trigger a similar realignment within Chinese policy circles, where military leaders are pushing for a more explicitly anti-American stance and a larger share of government funds. The most likely result, then, will be antagonistic moves on both sides, leading to greater suspicion, increased military spending, periodic naval incidents, a poisoned international atmosphere, economic disarray and, over time, a greater risk of war.
The Obama/Clinton push for a remilitarized Japan
The push for a Chinese confrontation has only grown stronger, and a key element is Japanese militarization, a full reversal of longstanding U.S. policy that began with the Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S.-imposed military governor of Japan after World War II.
MacArthur’s chief accomplishment was a new national constitution, embraced by the Japanese, in which the nation was barred from creating all but a token military, one designed only for self-defense — hence the name, the Japanese Self Defense Forces.
But no more, as Roll Call’s Rachel Oswald reported in May:
In recent years, Japan, eager to show its commitment to working with the U.S. military, has moved past the strictly pacifist security posture it adopted after World War II. A little over a year ago, the United States and Japan finalized new defense cooperation guidelines allowing deeper military collaboration.
In September, Japan’s parliament, the Diet, approved legislation that would, in the words of the Abe government, “reactivate Japan’s innate right to collective self-defense,” authorizing the country’s Self-Defense Forces to come to the defense of threatened allies, namely the United States.
Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia, said “2015 was a historic year for us and for the alliance,” and the United States wants “to ensure that momentum continues.”
Japanese officials are trying to demonstrate to Washington they are working overtime to modernize their regional defense posture.
“Japan is the most determined military partner of the United States,” said Yoji Koda, a retired vice admiral of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. But Koda and others worry there is little awareness of Japan’s role in world security efforts. “Washington always complains, ‘free rider.’ But if there were no Japan, U.S. world strategy doesn’t function.”
The crisis begins to boil
The confrontation between China and the Japanese/U.S. partnership is heating up, with the latest developments especially troubling.
From BBC News:
Japan’s foreign minister has warned that ties with China are “significantly deteriorating”, after Chinese vessels repeatedly entered disputed waters in the East China Sea.
Fumio Kishida said he had called China’s ambassador to protest against the “incursions”.
On Friday, about 230 Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels sailed near islands claimed by both countries.
Beijing has been increasingly assertive about waters it believes are Chinese.
The Japan-controlled, uninhabited islands – known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China – are the source of a long-running dispute.
The Japanese coast guard said on Monday that about 13 Chinese coast guard ships, some of them armed, had been seen near the islands, higher than the usual number.
“The situation surrounding the Japan-China relationship is significantly deteriorating,” Mr Kishida told Cheng Yonghua, Beijing’s envoy to Tokyo, according to a statement on the foreign ministry website.
“We cannot accept that [China] is taking actions that unilaterally raise tensions.”
Much more, after the jump. . .
Yet another development, via Reuters today:
Recent satellite photographs show China appears to have built reinforced aircraft hangars on its holdings in the disputed South China Sea, according to a Washington-based think tank.
Pictures taken in late July show the hangars constructed on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands, have room for any fighter jet in the Chinese Air Force, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said.
“Except for a brief visit by a military transport plane to Fiery Cross Reef earlier this year, there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed military aircraft to these outposts. But the rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change,” CSIS said in a report.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
The images have emerged about a month after an international court in The Hague ruled against China’s sweeping claims in the resource-rich region, a ruling emphatically rejected by Beijing.
China issues a response to the latest developments
The statement, by Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director of the Department for International and Strategic Studies, of the government’s China Institute of International Studies, appeared in People’s Daily today:.
Japan wants to weaken the ties between China and ASEAN countries. The newly-elected president of the Philippines will not follow the foreign policy of the Aquino administration, but has instead expressed willingness to improve ties with China. The South China Sea issue has also cooled off recently. Given such a context, the Japanese government is resorting to sneaky means to hurt China’s public image and strengthen its own ties with the Philippines. Japan’s foreign minister will soon kick off an official visit to the Southeast Asian nation. Japan is even asking the Philippines to resort to arbitration once again.
Secondly, Japan is trying to contain China’s development by seeking new allies. By playing up its anti-China stance, it is now poised to play a more important role than ever in the Asia-Pacific Rebalance strategy proposed by the U.S.
Thirdly, Japan wishes to become a bigger political and military power. Using the excuse of coping with Chinese threats, Japan can increase its interference in regional affairs. This excuse, coupled with increased military spending and the lifting of the ban on Japan’s collective right of self-defense, poses a new security threat to the region.
China will neither be blinded by illusion nor compromise on its core interests. There is truly no reason for Japan to overreact to or protest against China’s reasonable and legal activities in the East China Sea.
And as key reason for confrontation: Undersea riches
Among the many reasons for the escalating confrontation between the two Asian power, a fray joined by Vietnam [now being armed by the U.S.], the Philippines, and other lesser powers, is the growing realization that the seabed contains potentially vast oil and natural gas fields as well as mineral riches spewed up from deep below the ocean floor by vents along the regions many faultlines, caused by the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates.
A map from the Biologiezentrum in Linz, Austria depicts the faults:
And Japan has launched a major effort to capture that mineral wealth, as Bloomberg reports today:
As deep as 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) under water and 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from Tokyo, work has begun on the new hunting ground for metals in Japan, a country so devoid of natural resources that most of what it needs has to be imported.
As the island nation depleted most of its land-based minerals in the economic boom that followed World War II, scientists have identified swathes of the sea floor littered with nuggets containing everything from copper to gold left over from the volcanic activity that created the archipelago millions of years ago. The trick is extracting them at a profit, something a government consortium will start testing next year.
It’s not surprising that mineral resources sit untouched in deep waters around Japan. The country is nestled in the Pacific Basin along a line of volcanoes and fault lines known as the “Ring of Fire,” a region prone to earthquakes and eruptions. When that volcanic activity occurs in the sea, magma pushes up from the Earth’s crust. After it cools, the deposits contain minerals in far greater concentrations than those dug from the land. In the blackness of the deep ocean, engineers have used remote-controlled robots and special sensors to search the sea floor for the most promising deposits.
As the world’s third-biggest economy and a major importer of everything from iron ore to oil, the country wants to exploit its rights to access sea-based mineral ores that one domestic industry group estimates may be worth 80 trillion yen ($784 billion). Under international maritime law, Japan holds sway over the area 200 nautical miles (230 miles) from its shores, constituting the world’s sixth-largest exclusive economic zone.
A chart accompanying the report gives some sense of what’s at stake in just one region of the disputed waters:
Whoever next sits in the Oval Office will most assuredly face a major crisis as tensions, fueled by Washington, continue to escalate.
The only question wis whether that person will be a political operator who helped engineer the confrontation or a raging narcissist whose actions are utterly unpredictable.
We wish you a good night’s sleep.