There is a growing crisis in the East China Sea which two countries, and only two, can stop before it grows into a major international incident.
The first is China. It is China that has turned the Senkaku Islands — or Diaoyu as they are referred to by Beijing — into a growing breach in Sino-Japanese relations; it is China that has used its serial intrusions into waters surrounding the Senkakus to provoke Tokyo and Japanese opinion; it is China that all but tried to blockade the islands with its fishing boats and coast guard vessels this past week; and it is China that installed a radar facility on one of its East China Sea offshore natural gas platforms — an obvious first step toward militarizing the East China Sea just as it has with the South China Sea, to the outrage of neighbors and the international community.
Yet it is naive to expect China to modify its behavior, especially after last month’s rebuke of its actions in the South China Sea by no less than a tribunal established by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The tribunal ruled that China’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea had “no legal basis” — while sharply condemning Beijing’s moves to build artificial islands on coral reefs in the Spratly archipelago that lie within the EEZ claimed by the Philippines, at the cost of considerable environmental as well as diplomatic damage.
Instead, China’s response to the ruling has been continued defiance — and now fresh provocations in the East China Sea.
Today, the only country that can make China see reason on these matters is the United States.
Only the U.S. can provide the leadership needed to halt and reverse China’s bid to turn its contiguous seas into a series of inland lakes — and to restore both geopolitical stability and freedom of navigation to these waterways which are so vital to global maritime trade.
The United States has its own vital interests to protect in these growing hotspots.
The first is its alliances with several countries in the region, not least Japan but also the Philippines and South Korea — as well as strong relations with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations who look to the United States for help in warding off a superpower that seems determined to assert its hegemony over the region.
The second is the protection of its own military bases in the region, including in Okinawa, which the assertion of Chinese sovereignty over the “first island chain” and extension of its Air Defense Identification Zone across the South China Sea would considerably complicate — to the point that the U.S. might find its ability to assert its long-standing strategic presence in the central and western Pacific in considerable danger.
Finally, that strategic presence has been the anchor of stability and prosperity throughout the entire region since World War II and the Korean War — one which has benefited every nation in Asia, not excluding China. Indeed, without that American guarantee of peace and stability, China’s own rise to the position of the second largest economy in the world would be unimaginable.
Freedom of navigation
Yet China seems to have decided it needs to challenge that 70-year-old order in order to achieve its larger destiny. It seems determined to rewrite the international rules that every other country in Asia except North Korea has recognized and adhered to — even Vietnam, the communist dictatorship that once humbled the United States in war but now is seeking U.S. help to protect it against its powerful northern neighbor (and former ally in the Vietnam War).
What can America do? First, it must take concrete steps to assert and support Japan’s clear historic claims to the Senkakus; and to urge China to “cool it” in its provocative actions in nearby waters.
The United States must then organize a multi-national naval force to assert full freedom of navigation in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea — a force that would include not only Japan and Australia, but also NATO countries. France’s defense minister has reportedly expressed interest in participating in such a naval demonstration in the South China Sea. Why shouldn’t Washington take this opportunity to show that freedom of the seas is a universal right, and denying that freedom is a universal wrong?
Finally, the United States should propose the immediate demilitarization of the Spratlys as well as the Senkakus, whether those military installations belong to China or other nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam. This would be a major step toward defusing tensions but also removing possible pretexts for unilateral military action that could trigger a major international crisis.
Just as the Balkans were the “powder keg of Europe” prior to the outbreak of World War I, so the South and East China Seas are swiftly becoming the powder keg of Asia. It’s up to America to use its diplomatic and strategic leverage, its prestige and long-standing relationships with all the countries in the region, including China, to pull out the fuse before it’s too late.