Parsing the East Asian Powder Keg
A major cause of current tensions in the East and South China seas are two documents that most Americans have either forgotten about or don’t know exist. But both are fueling a potential confrontation among the world’s three most powerful economies that is far more unstable and dangerous than most people assume. Consider what has happened over the past six months.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured Japan that the Americans would defend Japan in case of a military confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing. That same month, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said the Philippines could count on American support if there were a clash with China in the South China Sea. In early May, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces practiced “retaking” islands of the Amami Group near Okinawa in a not-so-subtle challenge to China over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. That same week, U.S. and Philippine forces held joint war games, while President Barack Obama promised “ironclad” support against “aggressive” neighbors seeking to alter “changing the status quo” in Asia.
In mid-May, China challenged Japanese ownership of Okinawa, stating it did “not belong to Japan,” challenging Tokyo, and indirectly calling in to question the presence of huge U.S. bases on the island. At the end of May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Tokyo would support the Philippines, Vietnam, and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in their disputes with Beijing over islands and shoals in the South China Seas. And on July 1, the Abe government “re-interpreted” Article 9 of its peace constitution to allow Japan to use military force in support of its allies. U.S. allies in the region supported the move. The Philippines agreed to allow the U.S. military use of the former American base at Subic Bay.
American naval vessels have accused the Chinese Navy of playing chicken off China’s coast. Chinese ships are blockading Philippine ships near a number of disputed shoals and reefs. Vietnam claims China rammed some of its ships. Japan scrambled a record number of fighter planes to intercept supposed incursions by Chinese and Russian aircraft. U.S. Senator John McCain called China “a rising threat,” and the Pentagon’s Frank Kandell told the House Armed Forces Committee that U.S. military superiority in the Pacific was “not assured.”
In short, “tense” doesn’t quite describe the situation in Asia these days, more like “scary.” A major source of that friction are two documents, the 1951 “San Francisco Treaty” that ended World War II in Asia, and a little known doctrine called the AirSea Battle plan.
According to research by Kimie Hara, the Director of East Asian Studies at Renison University College and the author of numerous books on the Cold War in Asia, today’s tensions were purposely built into the 1951 Treaty. “Close examination of the Allies’ documents, particularly those of the United States (which was primarily responsible for drafting the peace treaty), reveals that some, if not all, of these problems were intentionally created or left unresolved to protect U.S. strategic interests.”
Hara say the U.S. wanted to create “strategic ambiguity” and “manageable instability” that would allow the U.S. to continue a major military presence in the region. She specifically points to disagreements over the Kurile/Northern Territories Islands, the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the Spratley/Nansha and Paracel/Xisha islands, the divided Korea, and the Taiwan Straits. All of these—plus a few others—have led to tensions or confrontations among Japan, China, Russia, the Philippines, Vietnam, South and North Korea, Malaysia and Brunei.
Neither China nor Korea was invited to the Treaty talks, and while the USSR was present, it was not a signatory.
Sometimes the U.S. directly sabotaged efforts to resolve issues among Asian nations. In 1954, Japan and the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations and were on the verge of cutting a deal over the Kurlies/Northern Territory islands, essentially splitting the difference: Japan would take two islands, the USSR another two.
However, Washington was worried that a peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow would eventually lead to diplomatic ties between Japan and communist China, and that would have exerted, says Hara, “considerable pressure on the United States to vacate Okinawa, whose importance had significantly increased as a result of the Americas’ Cold War strategy in Asia.” Okinawa was a major base for the U.S. during the Korean War.
So Washington torpedoed the deal, telling Tokyo that if it did not demand all four islands, the U.S. would not return Okinawa to Japan. The U.S. knew the Soviets would reject the Japanese demand, which would scuttle efforts to reduce tensions between the two nations. There is still no peace treaty between Russia and Japan.
AirSea Battle (ASB) has been official U.S. military doctrine in Asia since 2010, and what it calls for is chilling: the military defeat—WW II style—of China. Not even during the height of the Cold War did the U.S. and it allies envision defeating the Soviet Union, seeking to rather “contain” it.
In the 1990s, China began building a military that could defend its coastal waters. Called “denial of access,” it includes a variety of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, stealth submarines, cyber warfare and space surveillance. China’s turn from its traditional reliance on land forces to “denial of access” was given a major push in 1996 when the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits during a period of tension between China and Taiwan. Beijing could do nothing about it, and the Chinese military was deeply embarrassed.
ASB is designed to neutralize “denial of access” by “blinding” Chinese radar and surveillance capabilities, destroying missile sites and command centers, and, according to Amitai Etzioni of Washington University—author of books on U.S. foreign policy and a former Senior Advisor to the White House under Jimmy Carter—allowing U.S. military forces to “enter contested zones and conclude the conflict by bringing to bear the full force of their material military advantage.”
A land invasion of China?
The potential dangers involved in such an undertaking are sobering. Since ASB includes strikes deep into Chinese territory, Beijing might assume such attacks were directed at China’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The general rule with nukes is “use them or lose them.” According to Etzioni, the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that, “China is likely to respond to what is effectively a major attack on its mainland with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms.”
While Pentagon officials claim that ASB is not aimed at any particular country, China is the only power in Asia capable of “access denial” to the U.S. military. Etzioni quotes one “senior Naval official” as saying “AirSea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”
The Chinese are fully aware of ASB, which does much to explain their recent assertiveness in the East China Sea. The Diaoyu/Senkakus are part of the “first island chain” through which Chinese submarines and surface craft must pass in order to exit Chinese coastal waters. If Japan controls those islands it can detect—and with anti-ship missiles destroy—anyone going from China to the Pacific.
The South China Sea disputes also find their roots in the San Francisco Treaty. China has a good case that Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu/Senkakus violates the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. Potsdam was supposed to dismantle Japan’s empire, including territories that it had seized during its years of expansion. The Diaoyu/Senkakus were absorbed by Japan following the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War, so China has a solid ownership argument.
However, it can make no such case for the Spratleys, Parcels or reefs and shoals of the South China Sea. It may be that defense considerations are driving some of those disputes—most of China’s energy supplies transit the region—but oil, gas and fishing rights would seem to loom larger. In any case, China appears to be in violation of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that guarantees countries a 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone.” China, using a 19th century “nine dash line” map claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 3.5 million sq. kilometers of the South China Sea, a sea that borders six nations and through which one third of the world’s shipping passes.
While China’s forceful behavior in the East China Sea is somewhat understandable, throwing its weight around in the South China Sea has given the U.S. an opportunity to exploit the situation. Because of tensions between China the Philippines, the U.S. military was invited back into the islands. And China’s unilateral actions in the Paracels has some Vietnamese talking about a military relationship with Washington.
All sides need to take a step back.
China should adhere to a 2002 ASEAN code of conduct to consult and negotiate its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, and to bring the issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku before the International Court.
The U.S. should back off its blank check support for the rightwing Abe government. Tokyo started this fight in 2010 by first arresting a Chinese fisherman—thus violating an agreement not to apply domestic trespassing laws to fishing violations—and then unilaterally declaring sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkakus in 2012, a violation of a 1972 agreement with China to leave that issue up to negotiations.
Washington sould also reverse its expensive expansion of military forces in Asia—the so-called “Asia pivot”—and reconsider the folly of the AirSea Battle doctrine. According to Raoul Heinrich of Australian University, ASB “will greatly increase the range of circumstances for maritime brinkmanship and dangerous naval incidents.” Establishing military “hot lines” between the major powers in the region would also be helpful.
The current tensions are exactly what the San Francisco Treaty was designed to do: divide and conquer. But with the potential dangers of escalation embedded in the doctrine of AirSea Battle, local tensions are threatening international order.