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Asia's Crimea?

Nicole GoebelApril 9, 2014

The US is stepping up efforts to defend Japan against threats from North Korea and China. Several disputed islands in the South and East China Sea have the potential to threaten the stability of the entire region.

G20 Gipfel Russland Sankt Petersburg Barack Obama und Shinzo Abe
Image: Reuters

During his recent trip to Tokyo, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reassured Japan that there is no "weakness on the part of the United States as to our complete and absolute commitment to the security of Japan," emphasizing the US's strategic rebalancing, or so-called "pivot" towards Asia.

This was not just rhetoric to calm Japanese nerves, says Edward Schwarck, Asia fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "US commitment in the region is absolutely unshakeable," he told DW. "A credible US security assurance to Japan is fundamental to the entire alliance architecture of the Asia-Pacific."

"If the US was to slip up in its commitment to Japan, it would lose its foothold and presence in the region…and, in doing so, could well hand over the region to a more expansionist China," Schwarck added. The backbone of US-Japanese relations is a bilateral security treaty Washington signed in 1951 with Toykyo requiring it to respond should Japan be attacked.

In the wake of the Crimea annexation, Japan perceived the US as being hesitant and worried that Washington might neglect its ally should the long-standing islands dispute between Japan and China escalate.

USA Chuck Hagel in China 8. April 2014
Hagel did not mince his words in BeijingImage: Reuters

"Until Secretary Hagel's visit, people were talking more openly - 'imagine this could happen in Senkaku, would the US be there?'," Yuki Tatsumi, senior associate at the Stimson Center, a US think tank, told DW. She says Hagel's visit has therefore been well-received in Japan.

During his visit, Hagel announced the deployment of two further Aegis missile defense ships to Japan, in response to North Korea's missile launches, but also to demonstrate US support for its Asian allies, such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia against what it perceives as Chinese aggression.

Great power, great responsibility

Hagel, who is on a 10-day trip to Asia ahead of President Obama's visit to the region at the end of the month, wasted no time in reminding China that the US intends to continue to play a major role in the region. He called China a "great power" that is now facing new and greater responsibilities too.

He linked Russia's actions in Crimea with China's perceived attempts to bully other Asian nations in the disputes revolving around the sovereignty of several islands in the East and South China Seas.

"You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and the sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it's in small islands in the Pacific, or in large nations in Europe," he said.

China, Taiwan and Japan are engaged in a bitter dispute regarding the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea - known as Diaoyu islands in China - with each party claiming the resource-rich, but uninhabited islands for itself. The islands have been under Japanese control since 1972, but China does not recognize Japanese sovereignty there.

Senkaku Inseln Japan
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan and JapanImage: picture-alliance/Kyodo/MAXPPP

In addition, China adheres to the decades-old controversial nine-dash or nine-dotted line principle in the South China Sea, under which it claims several islands in those waters, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

There have also been ructions between China and the Philippines over what Manila says is China's occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, another contested area off the Philippines' West Coast. The Philippines has taken its case to the UN.

The entire area around the various disputed islands is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world and a potentially rich source of oil and gas. For China, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are also currently blocking access to the Pacific, as they are under Japanese control.

No 'trouble' from China

While Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan told Hagel during his trip to Beijing that China did not want to "stir up trouble," he also stressed that "we will neither compromise on, concede or trade on territory and sovereignty, nor tolerate them [the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands] being infringed on even a little bit," stressing that China seeks negotiations "with countries directly concerned."

Since mid-2012, China has increasingly been engaged in what the US considers bullying tactics in the East and South China Seas, harassing fishermen and military vessels close to various disputed islands. But Schwarck says China is unlikely to go for a land grab, its actions are aimed at getting Japan to at least acknowledge that there is a dispute, which Tokyo does not at present.

Philippinen China Streit um Seegebiet Fischereikontrolle im Südchinesischen Meer Demonstration Manilla
Manila says China has seized the Scarborough ShoalImage: dapd

"An attempt to seize the Senkaku Islands by force would likely result in a conflict with Japan and the US, which could risk escalating into a war, so I don't see any appetite for that," Schwarck told DW. He explains that China's current military doctrine is focused on maintaining "a stable regional and international environment that is conducive to its continued economic growth."

"We have to remember that the number one priority of the Chinese state is to maintain economic growth to turn it into a global power. Starting wars and conflicts in its immediate neighborhood is not conducive to that," Schwarck said.

Multilateral efforts

Tatsumi and Ely Ratner, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, agree that there is no immediate threat from China, but that there are lessons to be learnt from the conflict in Crimea.

Bildergalerie Krim Ukraine Russland 20.3.14
Is Putin's annexation of Crimea an example for China?Image: Reuters

"The types of things we wished we'd had in place in Europe are the kinds of things we might think about speeding up in Asia, whether it's supporting international law to adjudicate some of these disputes, having stronger multilateral structures, helping allies and partners better defend themselves," Ratner told DW.

Tatsumi says the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, has already put a focus on multilateralism, by supporting forums within ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), such as the Asean Defense Ministers' Meeting ADMM-Plus.

"ASEAN is coming out to be the anchor of some of the multilateral efforts for the Asia-Pacific region and the US does want to support that," Tatsumi said.

Sign of Western 'weakness'

While not serving as a blueprint for Beijing to go to war over disputed islands in the East and South China Sea, the Crimea conflict showed China that the West, in this case, was "incapable of producing a robust response," as Schwarck puts it. He says it fits in with the Chinese "narrative" of current US and Western weakness that long-term could "feed into more Chinese adventurism and belligerence."

But, he says, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also has shown little inclination to improve relations with China, be it through his "highly ambiguous statements" on the so called comfort women, i.e. Japanese sex slaves during WWII or his visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, both of which have outraged Beijing and exasperated Washington.

Add to that the fact that Japan is not even prepared to acknowledge that there is a sovereignty issue with the Senkakus, from Beijing's point-of-view, and it is obvious that there is a long way to go yet in solving disputes in the East and South China Sea.