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The East China Sea heats up

By Dale R. Herspring

A verbal dispute among Japan, South Korea and China over a little known string of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea is threatening to blow up in our faces.  Directly or indirectly, it involves six countries, four of which possess nuclear weapons.  The six countries are Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, Russia and the U.S.

First, some background.  The issue is possession of the Senkaku islands (known as Diayou in China). The islands are currently controlled by South Korea, which maintains a maritime research station there.  The seabed around the islands is believed to be rich in natural gas and mineral deposits.  Several years ago, the Japanese purchased the islands from their previous owner.  This leads to tension between Japan and South Korea.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s goal is to cower the Japanese, and South Koreans, thereby forcing them to cede possession of these islands to China.  The result would be an expansion of Beijing’s power in the South China Sea.  It would not only weaken Japan’s influence in the region, but it would send a clear message to other, far weaker governments in the region, that standing up to China is futile.

Relations between China and Japan have always been difficult.  After all, Japan conducted an exceedingly brutal and racist campaigns against the Chinese during its invasion of the country in the 1930s.  While World War II ended almost 70 years ago, hatred toward things Japanese in China continues to mar the relationship.  The establishment of diplomatic relations in 1951 was an encouraging sign.  The problem is that deeply held suspicions on both sides have continued to fester.  One source maintains that the Chinese cadre inside the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that ran the “Chinese desk” in the MFA have passed from the scene.  Indeed, this same source argued that being associated with China is the kiss of death in the MFA.  Indeed this section is not headed by a Chinese specialist.  As one MFA official (a non-Chinese specialist) put it, “I think that was an effort to exclude them from decision-making on China,”

As far as the Chinese side is concerned, the prevailing attitude toward Japan has been increasingly negative.  Indeed, ever since Xi Jinping took over as President of China last spring, China’s approach has become increasingly bellicose and nationalistic.

So what happened with these three islands?  On November 23, China announced that it was expanding its Air Defense Zone (ADIZ).  China’s new ADIZ included the Senkaku islands (Ieodo in Korean) and requires all foreign aircraft to identify themselves when flying through that air zone. The Japanese and South Koreans were furious and condemned the action.  The Japanese announced that they would ignore Beijing’s orders.  Their ships and planes would continue to fly through that zone unannounced.   

Then on November 27 two U.S. B-52 bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, flew through the Chinese ADIZ.  For its part, Washington wanted to send a strong message to Beijing, without taking sides in the simmering dispute between the Japanese and South Koreans.  The flight of the B-52s clearly got Beijing’s attention.  The message was clear: Washington is not recognizing China’s new zone.  This demonstration of air power was not lost on the Chinese.  They officially announced that they “had monitored the entire process.” 

The day after the B-52 flight, the Global Times, a Chinese government run newspaper, published an editorial which warned that such actions by the U.S. could put the two countries on a collision course “which will prove much more hazardous than sending military aircraft to play chicken in the air. 

The Japan then announced that it had ordered two of its biggest airlines, ANA and Japan Airlines, to stop filing flight plans with the Chinese as a demonstration of the country’s disapproval.  The South Koreans also announced that their civilian aircraft would ignore the Chinese ADIZ.  Finally, the North Koreans announced their own air zone.  It does not cover the disputed islands (thank God), that was not their purpose.  In this case, they wanted to show that they were one of the big kids on the block.  Let us hope they do not do something stupid.

The Chinese have put themselves in a difficult position.  They were the ones who threw down the gauntlet.  They unilaterally declared ownership of these three islands.  But the other side didn’t blink.  They threw China’s claims back in its face.  Now what to do?

If they take action against an American, Japanese, or South Korean plane, they run the risk of starting World War III – something which would not be in Beijing’s interest.  But, to this point, the Chinese have lost face. 

The U.S. is also playing a difficult role behind the scenes.  Two of its closest allies also claim these islands.  Now Washington does not only have to avoid a military conflict with China, it also must find a way to get its two allies to stop fighting amongst themselves. 

As far as the Russians are concerned, they are keeping their heads down.  Moscow has too many other things to worry about.  They are obviously concerned at the prospect that conflict could break out over these islands.  At the same time, I suspect they are enjoying seeing the U.S. in the middle of this island dispute.  This time the heavy weights are on Washington’s back.

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