Conn HallinanOn the face of it, it is hard to explain why a minor collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel this past September escalated to the point of Beijing and Tokyo nearly breaking off relations. But the incident mirrors policies that both nations see as vital to their self-interests. It is also connected to the aggressive U.S. push to defend its traditional power in the region.

The disputed ownership of the scatter of tiny islands in the East China Sea claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan—the Senkakus to the Japanese, the Diaoyus to the Chinese—is less about fish than the potential energy reserves that might lie beneath the reefs and atolls. But for more than 30 years both sides have largely avoided the kind of confrontation that took place September 7.

From the Japanese point of view, the incident reflects an increasing assertiveness by Beijing in the East and South China seas, areas that China describe as “core” regions for its security. From China’s point of view, the Japanese arrest of the Chinese captain of the fishing boat was a provocative act that reflects a growing hostility by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). And Beijing is certain that the Americans are behind it all.

In a sense, both sides are correct.

Encircling China

The DPJ was elected on a platform of improving relations with China, renegotiating a new American base agreement on Okinawa, and distancing itself from Japan’s umbilical linkage to U.S. policies. But the Obama administration torpedoed the new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, by refusing to compromise on the Okinawa base. When Hatoyama folded under the pressure and resigned, he was replaced by the far more pro-American Prime Minister Naoto Kan. From China’s point of view, Washington engineered a coup, marginalized the more independent-minded wing of the Democratic Party, and brought Japan back under the U.S. umbrella.

Adding insult to injury, the United States has scheduled joint American-Japanese naval maneuvers near the disputed islands and war games off Taiwan, the island province that China claims is part of its national territory. The United States recently concluded major naval war games with South Korea in the Yellow and South China seas, maneuvers that drew a sharp protest from Beijing.

“[The United States] is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and constantly challenging China’s core interests. Washington will inevitably pay a costly price for its muddled decision,” Rear Admiral Yang Yi wrote in the People’s Liberation Army Daily.

And yet Japan is correct that a powerful current of nationalism has made China increasingly ready to challenge the traditional balance of power in Asia. For the past century European powers and Japan routinely encroached on Chinese territory, slicing off provinces and exploiting China’s economic resources. China still nurses a grudge over Japan’s brutal 1931-45 invasion.

Historical humiliations do play a role in the current crisis. But if one thing drives China’s foreign policy, it is access to energy to fuel the country’s explosive industrialization. Much of the oil and gas that keeps China’s factories humming comes by sea, and Beijing is increasingly concerned about the delicacy of its energy jugular vein. Close off the Malacca Straits between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula and those factories go silent.

Therefore, when the United States and it allies Japan and South Korea carry out naval war games in the Indian Ocean and the waters near China, Beijing responds by beefing up its navy and vigorously defending what it considers its economic zone. These moves in turn give the United States an opportunity to build alliances in the region and keep its irons in the fire.

Islands of Contention

Consider China’s claim on the Spratlys and the Paracels, two groups of islands in the South China Sea. The islands are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The countries with claims on the Spratlys and Paracels want to negotiate with China as a bloc, but Beijing insists on dealing with the dispute nation by nation. The standoff allowed the United States to jump in and offer to mediate the issue. From China’s point of view, the U.S. is using the dispute to inject itself into one of its “core” regions and pull Vietnam and others into an alliance against China. To the countries involved, China is being a bully, and if the United States wants to help out, that is fine by them.

There are other bones of contention in the region.

Future water supplies concern the Chinese. A major source of its water is the Himalayas, where glaciers are rapidly retreating in the face of climate change. Countries that border the mountain range are supposed to consult with one another, but China is busy building dams to corner much of the runoff.

There are historical tensions in the region as well. India lost a hefty slice of territory to China in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and, since 2005, Beijing has come to call Indian-controlled Arunachal Pradesh border area “South Tibet.” There are also reports that China is building up its military forces in this area. Although some rightist forces in India talk openly about it, an armed conflict with China seems unlikely. Nevertheless, the border dispute has effectively strengthened ties between New Delhi and Washington.

Taiwan is another “core” area. The United States is selling arms to Taiwan and holding joint naval exercises with Japan aimed at stopping a Chinese invasion of the island. However, recent polls in Taiwan indicate that its residents have little fear of an invasion, and Taiwan and China have even carried out joint search and rescue maneuvers. China accuses the Americans of stirring up trouble, but it is China’s refusal to take a possible invasion of Taiwan off the table that allows the United States to keep a foot in the door.

The United States and Japan view North Korea as an unstable and dangerous nuclear threat. From China’s point of view, the United States and its allies want North Korea to collapse, which would not only flood China with refugees, but put U.S. ally South Korea on China’s southern border.

A Way Out?

The United States is certainly trying to surround China with military forces and an alliance system hostile to what Beijing sees as its basic interests. China’s need for energy, water, and security has also led it to exert itself in ways it has not done in a very long time. For Japan and the United States, this assertiveness will take some getting used to.

But none of these tensions is insurmountable. U.S. armed forces in China’s backyard are a potential threat, but Chinese belligerence in places like the Spratlys and Tibet give the United States a rationale for maintaining its military power in Asia. Energy needs are global, and need not be turned into a competition. Himalayan water is not just a problem for India and China, but Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia as well.

There are signs that the sides are trying to bank the fires. The Chinese agreed to re-establish military-to-military meetings with the United States, and Beijing and Tokyo made nice during the recent Asia-Europe summit in Brussels. At the same time, small anti-Japan protests have broken out in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The demonstrations are small and localized so far, but they wouldn’t likely continue without a wink and nod from the government.

National problems have regional consequences, and regional problems have increasingly assumed a global dimension. A strengthened and more democratic United Nations is necessary to resolve these crises. The alternatives – spiraling conflict and even war between the two East Asian giants — are the stuff of nightmares.

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