Sunday, May 12, 2013

China’s Evolving ‘Core Interests’

An editorial in The New York Times on May 11, 2013 (in print on May 12, 2013, on page SR10) chastises the Chinese for defining the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as "core interests" that will be defended and the Japanese for casting doubt on their willingness to stick to their past war apologies. Neither was necessary and both undermined regional peace and stability.

On the same day, Ian Buruma in The Wall Street Journal had an extensive essay A Dangerous Rift Between China and Japan on how Asia's two great powers play politics with the past and court a crisis.

As he notes: On the surface, the dispute is about history, about which country has the best historical claim to sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu. In fact, it is more about politics, domestic and international, revealing the tangled relations in a region where history is frequently manipulated for political ends.

Buruma proposes no solution, but laments that
Things, in short, are back to square one: Pax Americana containing China, with Japan as Washington's loyal vassal. This might seem a stable, even comfortable, position from the U.S. point of view. In fact, it isn't. For a long time, the Chinese put up with the U.S. being the policeman of East Asia, because the prospect of a more independent, fully rearmed, even nuclear Japan would be worse. But Japan's role as a kind of cat's paw of American dominance, with Japanese nationalists compensating for their subservience by indulging in bellicose talk, will be the source of ever greater tensions, which are bad for everyone, including the U.S.
In December 2012, Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, wrote in an op ed for the The Sydney Morning Herald that the protracted dispute between China and Japan over ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands could serve as a flashpoint for military conflict between the two "nuclear" powers this year.

According to Professor White the dispute over the islands is a symptom of tensions engendered by China's rise in the Asia-Pacific, and the challenge it poses to American influence in the region. White believes that China's recent efforts to shore up its claim upon the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is a means of "pushing back" against US power in the Asia-Pacific.

Here is the text of The New York Times editorial:

Whenever China wants to identify the issues considered important enough to go to war over, it uses the term “core interests.” The phrase was once restricted to Taiwan, the island nation that China has threatened to forcibly unify with the mainland. About five years ago, Chinese leaders expanded the term to include Tibet and Xinjiang, two provinces with indigenous autonomy movements that Beijing has worked feverishly to control.

Since then, Chinese officials have spoken more broadly about economic growth, territorial integrity and preserving the Communist system. But recently they narrowed their sights again, extending the term explicitly to the East China Sea, where Beijing and Tokyo are dangerously squabbling over some uninhabited islands. Top Chinese military officials first delivered the message to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he visited Beijing last month. The next day, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, told reporters that “the Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course it’s China’s core interest.”

This wording, with its threatening implications, is raising new tensions in a region already on edge over North Korea and several other maritime disputes, and it will make it harder to peacefully resolve the dispute over the islands, called Diaoyu in China, and Senkaku in Japan.

While Japan has held the islands for more than a century, China also claims title and has sent armed ships and planes from civilian maritime agencies to assert a presence around them. The waters adjacent to the islands are believed to hold oil and gas deposits.

To some extent, China is simply throwing its weight around, challenging the United States and its regional allies. On Wednesday and Thursday, Chinese state-run newspapers carried commentaries questioning Japan’s sovereignty over the island of Okinawa, where about 25,000 American troops are based. Japan, whose wartime aggression against China and other countries still engenders animosity, has not helped. Last September, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda provocatively bought three of the islands from their private owner.

The right-wing nationalists who took power in December may be equally unwilling to put Japan’s past behind it, although the government of the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, took a positive step on Tuesday when it said it would abide by official apologies that the country made two decades ago to victims of World War II. China and Japan have strong economic ties and are critical to regional stability. Both will lose if they stumble into war or otherwise cannot resolve this escalating dispute. Though efforts are under way to find a mutually face-saving solution, using loaded phrases like “core interests” to describe the islands only adds to the political and emotional sensitivities and will not advance that goal.

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