August 22, 2012

In East China Sea, Tensions Run Deep

The New York Times published a report this morning differentiating between the underlying issues driving competition in the East and South China Seas.

As readers of this blog know well, concerns over access to natural resources are an important driver of competition in the South China Sea. States ringing the sea are competing for territorial claims to potentially rich reserves of oil, natural gas and other mineral deposits.

But in the East China Sea, other issues are in play. The New York Times reminds us: “Unlike in the South China Sea, where the frictions center on competition for natural resources, the East Asian island disputes are more about history, rooted in lingering — and easily ignited — anger over Japan’s brutal dominance decades ago.”

The latest dispute over the uninhabited island group near Taiwan – known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China – began in earnest earlier this year when Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishiara announced that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government was negotiating with private landowners to purchase the islands by the end of 2012. “Under pressure not to look weak in advance of elections, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda quickly said the central government would buy the islands instead,” The New York Times reports. “That set off a tit-for-tat between activists from both countries.”

The stakes are much higher in East Asia because you have bigger countries in close proximity, and the conflicts are more direct and emotional,” Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told The New York Times.

It will be particularly interesting to watch how China attempts to maneuver against Japan in the East China Sea.

In the South China Sea, China has pushed a bi-lateral engagement strategy for asserting its territorial claims, avoiding regional venues like ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – in order to take advantage of the fact that its negotiating position is strengthened by being the region’s economic powerhouse.  As a result, most of the South China Sea claimants have been weary of pushing China too hard out of concern that they might alienate their largest trading partner.

But China’s economic leverage doesn’t seem to be as effective over Japan, despite the fact that China is the country’s largest trading partner. For example, a row over the disputed islands in September 2010 prompted Beijing to temporarily suspend the export of rare earth elements to Japan, which are used in high-end electronics. But that backfired against China, which quickly began exporting rare earth materials to Japan. And it may have even emboldened some Japanese leaders. According to The New York Times, Since the events of two years ago when China cut off supplies of rare earths, Ishigaki’s mayor, Yoshitaka Nakayama, began flying the rising sun flag in front of City Hall for the first time since World War II.”

It is clear that tensions run deep on both sides of the East China Sea. And while competition in the South China Sea makes for attention grabbing headlines, the underlying issues in play in the East China Sea may be more intractable and problematic for U.S. policymakers charged with diffusing tensions in the region. It is worth keeping a watchful eye on how the situation develops. 

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