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Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012

Rocky future for China seas

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — One of the best aspects of the world since World War II has been rapid economic growth in Asia, which has seen once war-torn and impoverished landscapes turned into glittering cities with aspiring skyscrapers.

It is a pity that too many people have been left behind, inequality has grown, and a lot of the growth has been at the expense a destruction of the environment. Tackling those deficiencies is the task for the next stage of development.

Unfortunately, however, there is a real danger that the rapid growth of the region may be threatened by growing nationalism, complicated by muscle flexing by China, which is clearly on the rise economically and militarily.

The dangers were illustrated by the recent visits, or invasions, depending on your point of view, by small groups of hotheaded but well-organized nationalists to isolated rocky Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu by China) in the East China Sea.

Japan's ejection and deportation of the Hong Kong Chinese sparked a patriotic outcry throughout China, with demonstrations in a dozen cities. Televised pictures of a Chinese police car being overturned and bashed by mobs in the city of Shenzhen just over the border from Hong Kong puzzled my Japanese friends until they understood that it was a Japanese car and realized how serious the situation was.

The ferocity of feelings on all sides makes solutions difficult. International-minded statesmen are required if the Asia-Pacific region is to continue its voyage to prosperity, but instead chauvinist hoodlums and pirates are ahoy in most of the key countries, including China, Japan and South Korea.

Unfortunately in South Korea, President Lee Myung Bak took the lead and made a surprise visit to the disputed Takeshima islets (known as Dokdo in South Korea).

Both sets of disputed islands were incorporated into Imperial Japan by decree from Tokyo, in 1895 in the case of Senkaku and 1905 for Takeshima.

As Emeritus Professor Peter Drysdale of the Australian National University notes, neither territory "was decisively stripped from Japanese sovereignty at the San Francisco treaty conference of 1951, which legalized the postwar territorial settlement in the Far East."

Moreover, the Senkakus pose an extra layer of problems because they were part of the territory of Okinawa controlled by the United States after the war. They were mapped out and returned to Japan as part of Okinawa when Washington turned over the territory to Japan in 1972.

On Sept. 7, 2010, the Chinese trawler Minjinyu 5179 collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels, or rammed them, according to the Japanese.

After the incident, the U.S. confirmed that the disputed islands are specifically covered by the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Security and Cooperation between the United States and Japan, which obliges the U.S. to defend Japanese territory from third countries. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, told her Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara that the U.S. does not have a position regarding the sovereignty of the islands.

All the islands range between tiny and mere specks. The Senkakus are five islands and three rocks in the East China Sea, a mere seven square kilometers in area. China claims that they were called Diaoyu in a book dating back to 1403, and adopted in the Imperial Map of the Ming Dynasty. Beijing also contends that the islands are part of the continental shelf of China.

The Takeshima islets are even smaller — two islets and 35 rocks in the Sea of Japan with a combined area of 0.18745 square km.

Then President Syngman Rhee deployed the South Korean coast guard to occupy the islets in January 1952, and Seoul has been in contested possession ever since.

Given that the islands are too small and inhospitable to support human habitation, the usual rationale for the disputes is that the islands may be little more than rocks but they offer territorial claims to the seas around and their rich fish and oil and gas resources. You might think that grownup rulers of mature 21st-century countries would be able to resolve any such disputes with give-and-take deals over potential mineral resources.

The real problem is that nationalists are in the ascendant everywhere. South Korean commentators were surprised at what one called Lee's "stunt" to restore his flagging fortunes before he leaves office. But 80 percent of South Koreans supported him.

Japan's government has been caught flatfooted. Uichiro Niwa, Tokyo's ambassador to Beijing and the first envoy from the private sector, warned that attempts by Shintaro Ishihara, the maverick nationalist governor of Tokyo, to buy the Senkaku Islands from their private owner would cause a "grave crisis" in relations with China.

He was right, but for his pains he is about to be sacked, labeled as "pro-China" by the Japanese media. That did nothing to protect him from hotheaded Chinese on the streets of Beijing, who forced Niwa's car to stop and ripped the Japanese flag from the car.

It remains unclear whether China — which said it was "seriously investigating" the incident — is losing control of its chauvinists or is using them to keep up the pressure.

China normally keeps tight control over public demonstrations, but it has allowed anti-Japanese protesters a lot of freedom. The flag incident is puzzling because Japan would protect the Chinese ambassador from suffering any similar indignity.

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda would like to buy the Senkakus for the central government and try to keep the lid on the passions. But he has been too slow and his political position at home is weak.

It will not be easy to get the nationalist genies back in their bottles.

It should be a matter of grave concern that the Hong Kong activists who planted a Chinese flag on one of the Senkakus enjoy financial support from all the political heavyweights in the city including Chief Executive C.Y. Leung. Hong Kong enjoys a large degree of autonomy, but that freedom does not extend to foreign affairs, which suggests that Hong Kong is overstepping the limits — or is being used by Beijing.

Beijing may see the nationalist movement as a useful distraction from its growing economic problems.

In addition, it could be testing the resolve of the U.S. to come to the aid of Japan in the case of conflict.

Lt. Gen. Cai Yingting, the deputy chief of the general staff of China's People's Liberation Army, told U.S. officials on a visit to Washington in August that China opposed the U.S. declaration that the disputed Senkaku Islands fell within the scope of the 1960 U.S.-Japan treaty.

This is a strangely assertive position for an outside country to tell two countries that they are mistaken on what they agreed. Given that Cai is a rising star of China's military, it suggests that Beijing is deliberately testing Washington.

Japan has suggested that its dispute with South Korea should go to the International Court of Justice, which South Korea has refused. But if Tokyo is serious, it should offer up all the disputed territories to the international court for consideration, including the northern islands disputed with Russia, along with practical proposals to share the resources of all of the islands as well as the surrounding oceans with neighbors.

It may seem counterintuitive, especially when Tokyo can claim the high moral ground, but the high moral ground is of little use in the face of a poor foreign policy and a determined China. Look at the way that Beijing bullied Cambodia into keeping disputes with China off the agenda of the recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

A more active and imaginative Japanese foreign policy is needed to encourage Beijing to be more constructive rather than just repeating exclusive claims to 80 percent of the China seas.

All the nations of the Asia-Pacific region should learn to swim together or they will surely sink. But at the moment nationalist sharks are on the prowl.

Kevin Rafferty, editor in chief of PlainWords Media, has reported on Asia for 40 years.

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