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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Interesting times in East Asia

South-East Asia is in a strategically unenviable spot – too small to shape North-East Asia, and too near to it to avoid the havoc of conflict there.

Troubled waters: South Korea conducting a drill to guard a maritime science research station set up on the South Korea-controlled underwater reef of Ieodo. Conflicts can result from miscalculation, misperception or misinterpretation of an adversary’s actions or intentions. -EPA

IF outright aggression between nations often results in conflict, conflicts need not result directly from aggression alone.

Conflicts also arise from doubts, uncertainty and lingering suspicions. They can result from miscalculation, misperception or misinterpretation of an adversary’s actions or intentions.

Several of these “triggers” are on full display in North-East Asia today. Contributory factors include historical grievances between Japan and its immediate neighbours China and the Koreas, China’s growth and assertiveness, Japan’s brashness, Korea’s sensitivities and US ties to Japanese security interests.

That these countries are major players does not insure against open conflict between them. These major powers have the means to initiate and sustain full-scale war.

Nor is the location of potential conflict in North-East Asia a comfort to South-East Asia. Whether individually or together, Asean countries are not strong enough to deter or resolve such conflict, yet are not sufficiently far away to avoid its fallout.

Several of the disputes stem from Japan’s 2012 nationalisation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai islands also claimed by China and Taiwan in the East China Sea. As with other provocations, this occurred against the backdrop of Japanese atrocities against Chinese and Korean populations during the Second World War.

Then last November, China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over disputed islands and waters. After the United States declared the first ADIZ in 1950, Britain, Canada, India, Japan, Norway, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan followed. 

A country’s ADIZ requires foreign civilian vessels to identify themselves before entering. Essentially controversial and provocative, it is unilateral, unregulated and unauthorised multilaterally.

Beijing presumably thought that all countries had equal rights to declare such a zone. It may not have anticipated the protests it received, particularly from countries that had done the same thing before.

In December, Chinese and US warships narrowly avoided a collision. Despite both countries downplaying the incident subsequently, different versions of the event resulted.

Spats had erupted between China and Vietnam, and the Philippines, over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s presence in disputed territories in the South China Sea. Then in mid-2013, a China-Vietnam summit cooled tensions, leaving the Philippines somewhat in the cold.

But as if to sow doubts about Beijing’s own diplomatic competence, PLA(N) ships were reported in disputed waters off Sarawak late last year and early this year. This surprised Malaysian diplomatic and policy circles, since China had previously avoided upsetting Malaysia.

Countries in the region puzzle over why China is putting on such provocations, beyond testing the reactions of the other claimant countries. However, such tests can be made by other countries as well.

Late last month, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that China was preparing to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea. The area includes disputed islands and waters claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The report suggested the new ADIZ would initially cover the Paracel Islands and eventual­ly include virtually the whole sea. Beijing immediately retorted, warning Japan against spreading baseless rumours.

The Japanese report was either a truthful account or an attempt to test China’s response. That response has been clear enough.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, has been working hard producing its share of follies and fumbles.

In mid-December, Tokyo called a meeting with Asean countries to discuss defence concerns vis-à-vis China. That meeting flopped, as Asean leaders downplayed the defence aspect and preferred discussing economic relations with Japan.

Then after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December, Tokyo announced plans to nationalise another 280 islands. It coincided with the National Security Council’s launch to streamline the operations of security agencies and military forces under the office of the nationalist Abe.

That month, Abe criticised China’s ADIZ, calling it an attempt to change the regional status quo “by force”. Observers in the region were baffled by Tokyo’s definition of “force”.

Then the Japanese government revised textbooks to instruct schoolchildren that the islands in dispute with other countries were “an inherent part” of Japan. That again brought Beijing and Seoul together to condemn Tokyo.

At the same time, Japan planned military exercises with US and Indian forces, incorporating a US$2bil (RM6.65bil) loan to India. Days later, Tokyo planned more military exercises with US and Australian forces.

Such military responses with major countries outside East Asia do nothing to improve fraying relations within the region. But that disconnect apparently fails to concern policymakers in Tokyo.

Within Japan, Abe’s government is expanding its military forces over the Nansei Islands, covering Okinawa and the Senkakus. But reactionary nationalists had long seen the restrictions of Japan’s post-war “pacifist” Constitution as a hindrance.

Abe is now on a personal crusade to revise the Constitution to allow for a more assertive military. In his “historic mission”, Abe’s target is Article 9 which bans the use of military force to resolve disputes abroad.

The problem for Abe: a news survey last month showed 53.8% of the Japanese public opposing changes to the Constitution. How would a democratic Japan reject that majority view?

Abe seeks changes to permit Japanese force­s to make pre-emptive strikes, amounting to unilateral attacks on another country where self-defence may not be invoked.

After the US government advised US commercial airlines in November to abide by China’s ADIZ, Tokyo expressed bewilderment. Abe promptly concluded that the US had made no such decision.

Reports early this month said that Japan and the US had agreed to ignore China’s ADIZ in their military manoeuvres. But an ADIZ customarily applies to civilian, not military, vessels.

In other matters, however, there has been less agreement between Washington and Tokyo. A senior US military official warned against revising Japan’s Constitution. Since the overriding purpose was to build a trilateral alliance in North-East Asia comprising the US, Japan and South Korea to alienate China, a revised Japanese Constitution would instead alienate South Korea and disrupt the alliance.

In December, the US expressed “disappoint­ment” over Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine. The following month, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy objected to the cruelty of Japan’s annual dolphin hunt, provoking protests.

Three US Congressmen have lobbied Secretary of State John Kerry to address the “comfort women” issue with Japan. It involved more than 200,000 Korean women and girls who had been sexually abused by Imperial Japanese forces.

When NHK broadcast chief Katsuto Momii trivialised the issue, suggesting Japan’s wartime actions were acceptable, he caused more controversy. Momii was Abe’s pick for the top media job.

Kerry is due in China and South Korea in a week to discuss North Korea. Japanese observers note that he will be bypassing Tokyo. However, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was in Washington on Friday to discuss with Kerry the Abe-Obama summit in Tokyo in April. Abe has found a compelling need to reaffirm bilateral ties with the US.

While the scheduled summit will bear on the “US pivot” to East Asia, other countries may also do a pivot or at least a pirouette. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has directed major state-owned companies to relocate their head offices to Russia’s far east to help develop the region.

Where political and economic concerns converge, strategic considerations are never far behind. Such concerns, never lacking in East Asia, are now set to multiply.

 Behind The Headlines by Bunn Nagara Asia News Network

  • Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own. 
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