The start of China’s island disputes started in 2010 and slowly escalated. China voiced its claims over the Senkaku islands which are owned by Japan. In 2012, China expanded its cartographic aggression, encroaching on the territory of Vietnam and the Philippines. China started by drilling for oil within Vietnam’s territory and then by jettisoning Philippine fisherman from their historical fishing territory. That same year, China established their Air Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Senkaku islands despite Japanese ownership over the islands. China has declared that it may continue by imposing an ADIZ over disputed islands in the South China Sea.
China’s statements about the disputes are like sour green apples – they are firm and sometimes bitter. Former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attended the 2010 Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting where he tried his hand at intimidation, saying about the island disputes, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Then in 2013, Xi Jinping softened the blow at the 21st Century Global Think Tank in Beijing by saying that China is committed to maintaining harmonious relations with other nations. His nation also plans to take more responsibility in International affairs as China develops. In 2014, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Yi has said, “we stand ready to work with the United States to uphold peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and carry out positive interactions in this region.”
But China’s actions regarding these disputed islands have not been congruent with their statements. It has not been peaceful. Examples of conduct not becoming of a nation trying to maintain peace include using their ships as weapons, building islands for seemingly aggressive purposes, and encroaching on Japanese territory of the Senkaku Islands, causing them to scramble jets into the air. China is also building a military force to focus on regional disputes close to China’s borders. In response, China simply blames all of the miscommunications and heightened tensions in the South China Sea and East China Sea on foreign enemy number one, the United States.
In fact, China has never historically displayed consistent behavior regarding the islands. In 1968, the United Nations conducted a geological study of the ocean floor in the East China Sea. But in 1968, China was embroiled in its self-imposed Cultural Revolution so the study was never given any reaction. Even in modern times, no official statements have been made about the nine dash line in the South China Sea. We only have China’s claim that everything within the nine dash line is historically Chinese. China’s logic is that the nine dash line has always been acknowledged by South East Asian nations, therefore it must be valid. It doesn’t matter that China signed and ratified UNCLOS in 1996, which explicitly states historical claims over islands are invalid.
As a result of this incongruent policy, other Asian nations have been given no choice but to balance against a bullying China. Their backs are against a wall with a formidable military and economic power in the region. Japan, the strongest naval power in the region, has reinterpreted Article 9, and Vietnam is now being sold weapons from its old enemy, the United States. The Philippines have tried to take their complaints to International courts to get China to comply. This has little effect and now we see a tightening of relations between Asian nations. In recent years, the Philippines, Asia’s fastest growing economy, received 10 patrol boats from Japan and a warship as a gift from South Korea. At the end of November, Vietnam and the Philippines had their first ever port call about joint patrols in the Spratly’s. Even India is jumping into the fray. Narendra Modi, the new Prime Minister of India, is focused on expanding its maritime power and security cooperation with Japan and the United States.
If China wants to be respected on the world stage, they need to display a little bit of consistency. Their inaction in 1968 and their current comments about peaceful development versus their aggressive comments now has made it obvious that China plans to use their power to take what they believe is theirs. China should avoid escalating tensions because it will upset the regional balance. The most effective solution is joint exploration and development. Joint exploration and development would allow all claimants to get a piece of whatever energy can be extracted from the disputed areas. It would also decrease military tensions in the area. Another possibility is for China to simply honor the agreements it made. Unfortunately, China signed the UNCLOS agreements in 1996 in a disingenuous way. Instead, China should play by the rules and rescind ‘historical claims’ to the islands.
The United States has been very adamant that they want to maintain the status quo in the East and South China Sea. No modern day nation wants to be dragged into a conflict. But China’s increasingly aggressive expansion in the area is increasing the probability for conflict. This will only be bad news for Beijing.
By Daniel Connor
Daniel Connor lived in China for over two years and is a Chinese speaking Associate editor at the Journal of Diplomacy. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in Asian Studies and Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.
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