Turbulent Seas: Navigating the Conundrums around China

Rowan Callick, in the Australian 3 July 2009, where the title is “Rising Sun heats Tensions

TENSIONS in East Asia are rising fast this week, even as the countries of the region keep trading and investing furiously with each other.Consequently, attention will be focused on the visit to Australia next week of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This follows his announcement on Tuesday night that, under the policy of “proactive contribution to peace”, legislation will be passed to allow Japanese armed forces to use weapons to support international partners under attack.


This move, long foreshadowed, has been supported broadly by Washington and Canberra. But it remains deeply controversial among Japan’s neighbours. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry responded in a statement: “When it comes to Japan’s security discussion, the Japanese government should dispel doubts and concerns stemming from history, abandon historical revisionism and behave properly in a bid to win confidence from its neighbouring countries.” Noh Kwang-il, a spokesman at the South Korean ministry, elaborated about the prospect that Japanese troops might join American forces on the Korean Peninsula: “The right to collective self-defence is not something that can be exercised indiscriminately in another country.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that with Japan “stirring up troubles on historical issues” while also loosening restrictions on its security forces, “people cannot but question whether Japan is deviating from the path of peaceful development that it has been upholding since the end of World War II”.

Hong also warned that Japan “must not undermine China’s sovereignty and security interests”.

Abe will arrive in Australia a month after a historic meeting of the countries’ foreign and defence ministers saw relations intensify to their closest level in modern times. The four ministers issued a joint statement that the strategic partnership between the countries would be elevated “to a new special relationship based on common values and interests including democracy, human rights, the rule of law, open markets and free trade”, and confirmed the conclusion of an agreement for co-operation over defence technology, with Australia considering buying submarine equipment from Japan.

Top officials in Tokyo affirm that Australia is Japan’s most important security partner after the US, which is the ally of both. However, since the return of Abe to the prime ministership 18 months ago, China and South Korea have refused to hold talks at a senior level with the Japanese government.

When South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was persuaded in March by US President Barack Obama — their countries are also formal allies — to meet Abe on the sidelines of a nuclear security meeting in The Netherlands, she declined even to look at him.

This provides a serious challenge for Australia, since the No 1 foreign policy priority for the Abbott government for 2014 is to conclude a free trade agreement — the most challenging of the three FTAs the Prime Minister boldly set out as targets within a year. The other two deals, with South Korea and Japan, have already been agreed. China is Australia’s top export customer, followed by Japan and South Korea.

Foreign policy has been, under Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb, Defence Minister David Johnston and Tony Abbott, one of the few clear success stories of this government so far. But it is becoming ever more difficult to maintain cordial and profitable relationships with all the powers in the region simultaneously. The intensity of the rhetoric and the emotions, and the build-up of military capabilities — China not being unique in this but growing fastest, by double digits annually through this century so far — cannot continue at such a furious pace without more serious consequences.

The great value-chain through which products the world eagerly needs are made in different countries in East Asia, then assembled elsewhere, chiefly in China, continues on its successful path. But disruption resulting from security confrontations would have a grave impact on the whole international economy, especially on Australia.

The Asian Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit — for both of which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations acts as the hub — provide some scope for security dialogue, but only in the broadest-brush terms. In so far as ASEAN’s strength is measured by Indonesia’s, there is concern that the presidential election there next week will push to the fore the neophyte Joko Widodo or the Suharto-­era reversion, Prabowo Subianto.

The lack of military-to-military communications between regional rivals further raises the danger of incidental conflict sparking and spiralling out of control. A further reminder of the fragility of the fault-lines through the region comes today as China’s all-powerful President, Xi Jinping, arrives in Seoul. He will receive an especially warm welcome, since he has chosen to break with Chinese tradition and come to South Korea before China’s awkward ally in the North.

South Korea’s investments of people and money in China are huge — with Samsung, perhaps the largest single investor there, recently spending $7.5 billion on a single semiconductor factory in Xi’an. Like Japan, South Korea wants to build closer defence and other ties with Australia as a core ele­ment of its “middle-power diplomacy”. But the Chinese and South Korean leaders share an almost visceral dislike of Japan, which has been exacerbated by Abe’s positions on his country’s role in World War II.

On Boxing Day Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine that honours 14 war criminals among the dead, and recently reviewed Japan’s 1993 apology for “comfort women” — those forced into army brothels in Asia to serve Japanese troops. The apology was confirmed, but the review was perceived highly negatively in South Korea.

Abe follows only three people on Twitter: his wife, another Japanese politician and India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. So far Modi, who will visit Australia for the G20 summit in Brisbane in November with Xi, Obama, Abe, Park and the other leaders of key regional states, has hedged his public utterances about China, while developing a nationalist narrative. It was thought likely that his inaugural foreign visit would be to Tokyo, but he defused the potential consequences by first flying to neighbouring Bhutan.

But tensions continue along the 3400km border between India and China, which lacks close allies.

The two longest standing points of potential conflict within East Asia have almost been sidelined by the latest rise in tensions.

But North Korea’s third-generation leader, Kim Jong-un, has inherited a capacity to shock, as he showed in wiping out his uncle’s family and friends. Leading expert Andrei Lankov, at Seoul’s Kookmin University, describes him as smart and ruthless — and says he has learned from the experience of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi not to surrender his nuclear weapons.

And China continues to range 1000 missiles or so, chiefly on the Fujian coast, against Taiwan. While relations between Beijing and Taipei have warmed since Ma Ying-jeou became President there six years ago, with China’s chief Taiwan official, Zhang Zhijun, visiting there last week, there are signs this warming may be reaching its limits in Taiwan.

The election of a second Democratic Progressive Party government — perceived as pro-independence, even though it insists it is more pro status quo — could raise tensions there again. Taiwan students concerned about closer links with China recently occupied the parliament, and acquired the title of the “sunflower movement”.

They have their echoes in Hong Kong, which is emerging this year as a considerable challenge to Chinese governance. When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Deng Xiaoping dubbed the arrangement as “one country, two systems”. But many middle-class Hong Kongers today are stressing the “two systems”, while Beijing — in its recent “white paper” detailing its governance plans for the city — stresses the importance of loyalty to the “one country”.

Deng’s deal merely postponed the day, now approaching, when the thrust of the city’s governance would have to be determined. On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers — troublingly for Beijing, many of them youthful — participated in a pro-democracy demonstration.

The seas of East Asia — through which 70 per cent of Australia’s traded goods are carried — are especially fraught. China claims the islands in the East China Sea that it calls Diaoyu, and that Japan — which administers them — calls Senkaku. Japan claims the outcrop it calls Takeshima that South Korea — which administers them — calls Dokdo. And the South China Sea is broiling with such disputes, all exacerbated by the regional hunger for access to scarce resources as all economies — not only China’s — continue to surge.

Xi said recently that there was no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood, and that Chinese people did not follow the logic that “might is right”. But Beijing-based analyst Tom Miller, of Gavekal Dragonomics, says: “Across Asia, Xi Jinping’s much-vaunted ‘Chinese dream’ looks more and more like a Chinese nightmare. China’s hardening stance reflects a fundamental shift in diplomacy under (Xi), who has abandoned Deng’s dictum to ‘hide our capabilities and lie low’ for a proactive policy grounded in ‘great power diplomacy’.”

China’s claims are rooted in its understanding of history, while those of competing claimants tends instead to rely more on legal title, making common ground hard to find. It has asserted its right to regulate fishing across almost the entire South China Sea, where six other states maintain overlapping claims. It began recently to drill for oil — with strong naval support — 130km off Vietnam’s coast, in the Paracel Islands, setting off deadly anti-Chinese protests.

It claims the Scarborough Shoal that The Philippines believes it owns. And Miller says there is evidence it is “turning reefs into habitable islands, presumably so it can project its exclusive economic zone further out to sea”.

A consensus has emerged in China that the strong pushback from South-East Asian nations including Vietnam and The Philippines is caused by what influential Foreign Affairs University professor Su Hao calls “outside interference” — the US, which indeed has held exercises recently with Filipino forces.

So far, China’s gains have not been unwound, though.

The complexity of the situation is underlined by the presence of 1100 Chinese military personnel, on several ships, in the vast international RIMPAC exercises under way out of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

In contrast, Japan is increasingly concerned that the American “pivot” back to Asia is faltering because of diminished capacity and appetite for international involvement. Hence in part its eagerness to intensify its security relationship with Australia. Increasingly, others with a similar perspective in Asia say they are hoping that Hillary Clinton becomes the next president because she is viewed as more resolute on regional engagement than her ­rivals.

For all its domestic troubles, the Abbott government faces no fewer challenges internationally. These are mainly deep-seated tensions that cannot be resolved by Canberra, but continued deft handling of them can deliver much-needed runs on the board.

Originally published as Rising Sun heats tensions

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