FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Lyndon BurnsNews Weekly
Gathering storm clouds in the East China Sea
, April 13, 2013
The confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea initially rated almost no mention in the Australian media.
The Senkaku Islands.
The dispute was expected to burn itself out long ago, but instead it has progressed from words to shows of force, then to shadow-boxing, and now threatens to boil over into violence.
As the seriousness of the situation has belatedly been recognised, an explanation is being sought for the sudden interest of both parties in these tiny islands. The answer that is in vogue, at least in Australia, is that the islands encompass significant oil and gas reserves, and both sides want to be recognised as rightful owner prior to any exploration.
However, this explanation has three significant flaws.
Firstly, the potential energy reserves are modest: initial estimates have been revised downward, to a figure that is less than a year of China’s consumption at present rates. If one were to weigh the likely value of the reserves against the difficulty of extraction, even a brief military clash would cost more than simply buying oil off the global market. It is even possible that the entire Senkaku field is less valuable than the losses already incurred through the fall in trade with Japan.
Secondly, in areas of disputed sovereignty with more extensive reserves, China has not sought to establish sovereignty first and begin extraction later. The Chunxiao oilfield lies in the overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Japan and China; yet here China began development without seeking to have Japan — or anyone else — recognise their claim to the field beforehand.
Finally, China has not previously been confrontational. When development of the Chunxiao field soured relations between China and Japan, the Chinese agreed to co-develop the gas field with Japan, despite laying claim to the entire field. In fact, the Chinese policy had previously been to defer any resolution on the Senkakus rather than provoke a conflict.
The catalyst for the current confrontation was actually an attempt by the Japanese government to maintain the status quo. The nationalist mayor of Tokyo intended to purchase the Senkakus from private owners and develop them, in an attempt to reinforce Japanese sovereignty.
The Japanese government purchased them first, to preclude any development, thereby deferring a decision on the Senkakus yet again. But China reacted with outrage, apparently no longer satisfied with the status quo; the deal to co-development of Chunxiao was abrogated at the same time.
It seems that the Chinese leadership has deliberately reversed its policy on the Senkakus, and is now pushing ahead on a course that is precipitating a crisis. The reason for this change might be found within China, where it is generally accepted that its authoritarian system has been able to retain power by offering its people prosperity and prestige.
China suffered several centuries of turmoil and international humiliation, which reached its climax in the 20th century with prolonged civil war, foreign invasion, famines and purges.
From the ascension of Deng Xiaoping down to the present, the Communist Party has presided over a tremendous economic boom, with an attendant growth in prestige for the country. The regime is still brutally repressive, but there are no more purges, no more famines, no more plundering armies, and China is no longer the plaything of greater powers. Therefore, the Chinese people have largely accepted the status quo. The question has long been what would occur when economic growth began to falter, as is now the case.
The answer appears to be that the Chinese leadership has chosen to distract people from the country’s economic problems by deliberately spoiling for a fight and stoking nationalist fervour.
This is a tried and true method for maintaining power in an authoritarian system. In the first half of the 20th century, fascists elevated this trick to a central tool of statecraft. The intention is that the government poses as the champion of the country’s interest, which earns it gratitude among its subjects, while hatred is directed towards an external enemy.
For this purpose, Japan is seen as an ideal focus of Chinese hostility, as it has long been a traditional enemy of China. The bitterness caused by the vicious Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) has haunted relations between the two nations.
The Senkaku Islands dispute dovetails with this strategy, since China claims that the islands, along with Taiwan, were ceded to Japan in the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-5).
Both wars were part of the half century of turmoil and debasement that the Chinese Communist Party takes credit for ending after World War II.
As the world watches the gathering storm clouds in the East China Sea, it bears consideration that Beijing might have little interest in easing the tension. Faced with internal difficulties, China’s leaders could fear a loss of face at home more than a military clash abroad — particularly an air-sea battle in the vicinity of Taiwan, the very one for which the People’s Liberation Army has spent the past decade preparing.
Lyndon Burns is a writer from Bendigo, Victoria.