Mounting tensions over the East and South China Seas are threatening to torpedo the Asian Century. China and the Philippines locked horns near Scarborough Shoal this past spring. Now, China and Japan are in the midst of a dangerous standoff over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The United States, bound by treaty to help defend Japan, is caught in the middle of this fracas. America’s power and purpose are in jeopardy if the world’s three largest economies cannot step back from the brink.
The proximate cause of the problem is China’s insistence on creating a new status quo. A weaker China once kept mum over the islands, but a stronger China is reasserting its historical claims. Japan is equally convinced of its sovereignty, having regained control over the islands as part of America’s 1972 reversion of Okinawa. Japan rightfully worries about Chinese “salami tactics” that seek to gain territory one slice at a time. After all, China does not recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands and some even claim the “ancient Chinese kingdom” of Okinawa. Japan’s muscular use of its Coast Guard, coupled with occasionally inflammatory public utterances about history, only fuels nationalist sentiments.
There is no swift and definitive resolution. The intractable nature of the maritime disputes in these semi-enclosed seas off of China’s eastern and southeastern seaboard derive from conflicting perceptions of history, sovereignty and national identity. But successfully managing these differences can demonstrate the leadership necessary for all nations to benefit from the global power shift across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
An interim solution should be based on simple principles: doing no further harm, putting aside differences, and expanding areas of mutual interest. China and Japan alike should want to stanch economic and political hemorrhaging and avert either a new cold war or a brief hot war. The United States’ overriding interest is to keep the peace, by reassuring its ally and the region, while simultaneously preserving cooperation with China.
A good start would be for Chinese maritime patrol vessels to refrain from testing the territorial waters of the islands. Competing national law-enforcement ships needs to be kept at a safe distance from one another. Putting differences aside requires both countries to live by the old maxim of “same bed, different dreams.” That is to say, each should accept as fact that the other believes its right to sovereignty and that it would be untenable for any official to disavow such rights. But both governments can agree to disagree and instead focus on shared interests.
A common agenda should focus on fishing and maritime safety. An existing bilateral fishery agreement exempts the area around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands because of disagreement over how to enforce it. China and Japan should renew discussions in the spirit of enlarging fishery cooperation, including the delicate issue of enforcement. A similar attitude should apply to an existing agreement on oil and gas exploration. At the same time, Beijing and Tokyo should urgently reopen a maritime safety dialogue. An agreement on maritime safety can provide a firewall from inadvertent escalation at sea.
These baby steps towards dialing down tensions should occur within the context of a high-level diplomatic understanding between China’s new leadership under Xi Jinping and the current or next prime minister of Japan (probably Shinzo Abe, who may be elected as early as next month).
For both Chinese and Japanese leaders, the crisis in the East China Sea can be a crucible from which springs an enlightened statecraft expected of major powers. Will a rising China brazenly treat its neighbors like tributary states, or will it instead treat them as respected economic partners? China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in these seas appears to be part of a strategic reappraisal. Many Chinese have been clamoring to reassert themselves and their rapidly modernizing military rather than simply biding time and hiding capabilities, as Deng Xiaoping once advocated.
For Japan, there is an analogous leadership challenge. As with China, Japan is also becoming more aware of the need for it to shoulder greater international responsibilities. Will a more normal Japan – one that is neither the Chinese stereotype of 1930s’ militarism nor the perpetual postwar abnormal state that renounces armed force – be able to defend its interests without destabilizing the region?
As President Barack Obama heads to Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia to maintain momentum behind America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, he has an opportunity to refine U.S. objectives. If America’s rebalancing means anything, it should be that Washington is locked in for the long term on tapping into the geographical center of the global economy. Because the promise of the Asia-Pacific can only be realized by a durable peace, the United States, as a resident Pacific power, is committed to preserving freedom of the global commons – the maritime, air, outer space and cyber space arteries of 21stcentury connectivity. Such a commitment is being fulfilled through the gradual expansion of commercial, cultural, diplomatic and military engagement.
If President Obama carries one message to his summit meeting with other regional leaders, it should be that encouraging a de-escalation of tensions in the contested waters of the East and South China Seas can ensure that the rising tide of the Asia-Pacific’s promise lifts all boats in our globalized world.