Vague sea borders let hawks pick their fight

2010-09-23Asia Times

BEIJING - The question of who ultimately owns the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands scattered in the middle of the ocean between China and Japan has lingered for decades over the political and economic regional balance of power and could well take a few more decades to settle.

While Tokyo is officially investigating the incident in early September when a Chinese fishing boat, the Minjinyu 5179, was chased by the Japanese coast guard, and Beijing is seething with rage because of the investigation, a crowd of questions surrounds the incident. Very little is clear, and so it is uncertain who picked the fight.

At the time of the incident, some 160 Chinese fishing vessels were working in the shallow waters near the islands. Was the Minjinyu 5179 doing anything special? Was it the first time that a Chinese boat was hemmed in by Japanese patrols? If it was not the first time, at other times, did Chinese sailors obey Japanese orders once spotted? Why did the Minjinyu 5179 not obey this time? Was it only the Japanese who picked the fight?

Was the Chinese vessel simply a fishing boat, or did it have other purposes? Was it spying on submarine routes or other things?

Were the Japanese enforcing the limits around the islands for the first time? If not - and it is most likely it wasn't the first time - why did Tokyo decide to blow it up this time, during a delicate political power struggle for the leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan(DPJ)? At the same time as the incident, Ichiro Ozawa was challenging Prime Minister Naoto Kan for the DPJ presidency. Did the Japanese navy take the lead over the politicians? Or were the politicians in Tokyo cueing the navy?

Or was Beijing trying to prod Tokyo at a sensitive time, shortly after China overtook Japan's gross domestic product to become the world's second-largest economy after the United States? Again, was it the Chinese military or the government? Or was the incident simply something that got out of hand as the vessel rammed the Japanese boat? Or did they just crash against each other because of the waves or a captain's mistake?

Additionally, why did Japan decide to make a case out of it by reporting it? Many such incidents took place during the Cold War, but they almost all went ignored. Was the Minjinyu 5179 one of many unaccounted incidents? In this case, why inform about this one and ignore the others?

The Japanese reported the story first, but perhaps they had to because they arrested the crew. Anyway, could the arrest go unaccounted for, and why did they have to arrest the crew? Couldn't they simply stop, reprimand the crew, and return them to China?

None of these questions has a clear answer, and possibly there will never be answers, since both sides, with the facts in their hands, have an interest in presenting their own versions of the story.

Is it just a coincidence that the incident occurred just weeks after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the South China Sea, claimed by China and six other neighboring countries and territories, was of strategic importance for America, something that ruffled many feathers in Beijing? Is it another coincidence that it came after Beijing voiced its displeasure over the joint US-South Korean naval exercises just off the North Korean waters? Is there a broader plot by the US to hem in China, or by China trying to push its borders out?

Here is the crux: all around China there are vague sea boundaries, with even vaguer claims, and any side can push the envelope, or take actions that may be perceived as pushing the envelope. At any given moment an aircraft, a submarine or a fishing boat could cause an incident. Somebody can then leak it to the press and have it become a big international issue, stirring public emotions that kindle other incidents. In a matter of days, it could become a wildfire in which other countries demonize China or China demonizes other countries.

In other words, China can pick a fight with the rest of the world just by pushing the envelope on its vague ocean borders. Similarly, any country in the world can push China into a fight by stirring trouble with one of its neighbors.

During the Cold War, it was clear that incidents could fan the flames of public opinion and things could easily get out of control. Therefore, they were kept out of the public eye, and if they were leaked, it was clear that the tension was rising. At the time, besides the rules of conduct on the field, the sides believed it was necessary to muffle incidents - or reveal them according to political opportunities.

One way to handle them with China in the future could be to agree to a mutual ''non-disclosure agreement''. Therefore, it would be clear that the one breaking the agreement was the one wanting to pick a fight. As nobody wishes to be seen as the cause of a clash, there could be some incentive to restrain people on the field.

Moreover, the Minjinyu 5179 incident underscores once again a deep weakness in China. The government is dogged by hawks who want to start a fight with America. There are also doves, wishing to come to terms or even to "surrender" to America. Nobody knows for sure how strong either camp is, but certainly the hawks are pretty vocal.

If the system were to become democratic and the issue went to a vote, it is most likely that the hawks, appealing to the basest Chinese instincts and the half-hidden xenophobia dating back to colonial times, could perform well by fanning the flames of any "foreign provocation". In fact, opposition to alien prevarication or invasion brought down the empire, which was deemed too weak to deal with foreigners. And it was what made Mao Zedong's fortunes, as he managed to portray himself as a true patriot against Chiang Kai-shek (the nationalist leader), who was perceived as too weak with the invading Japanese.

The Chinese government has an interest in trying to come to terms with foreigners, who also provided the atmosphere and conditions for the extraordinary growth of the past 30 years, and has little interest in riding the tiger of nationalism. The apparent target of nationalists is foreign governments, but the real target is their own government that could easily be accused of being too weak with foreigners. Therefore, this government, if it wants to carry on with opening up and trading with the world, and being without the mandate of a popular vote, has an interest in squashing and forgetting about these incidents, which put it on the spot.

But a democratically elected government could be in no position to ignore those incidents, especially if the nationalists were openly prodding its flanks and threatening to undermine a parliamentary majority by shouting xenophobic slogans in their own free press. In other words, an undemocratic China, fully integrated into the world market, although weak because of a government without a popular mandate, can be in a position to cave in to foreign requests. A democratic China could react very differently.

We tend to forget that early 20th century Germany, which gingerly started World War I, the mother of all wars in Europe and the beginning of the end of the European domination of the world, was fully democratic. War was also voted for by the Social Democrats who, according to the then popular belief, were supposed to be pacifists, as proletarians' rights were thought to be without frontiers. In a similar fashion, a future democratic China could well be more war-mongering than present authoritarian China.

Here, there could be a paradox for America: if it wants to avoid a confrontation with China, it might have to cooperate more closely with authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP); if the US wants war, it could conversely try to push for a democratic China.

In a similar way, egged on by foreigners prickling over disputed areas, a nationalist group within the CCP could stage a coup in China and embark the country on a defense of its borders, as Chinese extra-nationalists claim that the People's Republic lost territories to all of its neighbors.

This forecast may be wrong, and surely nobody can be certain about future developments. Yet there are many reasons to tread carefully on territorial disputes, both for China and for its neighbors - unless either party wishes for an open conflict. (2010-09-23 Asia Times)


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