For most Americans, conflicting claims by Asian countries to small islands in the South China and East China Seas are a sideshow that distract from more serious national security issues in Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea and elsewhere. But recent events demonstrate that the United States ignores these island disputes at its peril.
On 9 May, a Philippine coastguard vessel sprayed with gunfire a Taiwanese fishing boat that was allegedly fishing illegally in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In a case of what Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou called ‘cold blooded murder’, Filipino forces fatally shot a 65-year-old fisherman in the back.
The fallout between the two countries has been considerable. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III rejected the murder allegation but gave a ‘personal apology’ for the incident, which he called ‘unintentional’. Taiwan rejected the apology and accused the Philippines of a ‘lack of sincerity and credibility’ in cooperating with its investigation. In the meantime, Taiwan sent navy ships to the area to protect its fishermen.
The official US response has been minimal at best, with a State Department spokeswoman declaring the United States is ‘hopeful [the Philippines] will move forward’ to investigate while the American ambassador to the Philippines said ‘we know these things will be resolved through negotiations. … We’re glad that they’re going to work these things out as democracies do’.
The real question is whether the United States can afford to distance itself from either this conflict between two US allies or the even more contentious dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
What if the dead fisherman was a PRC national killed ‘accidentally’ and ‘unintentionally’ by Japanese naval forces? Or what if PRC maritime patrol boats in the East China Sea had shot dead a member of the Japanese Coast Guard? Even worse, what would the United States do if a deadly clash occurred between Japanese F-15 fighters and Chinese maritime aircraft?
The United States has become hostage to the hardline policy of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has used the island conflict to pander to nationalist feelings and bolster his domestic political standing.
In the event of a confrontation with Chinese patrol boats or aircraft, Abe has made it clear Japan will respond aggressively — that is, it will shoot first and ask questions later — to defend Japan’s territorial claims. That would likely draw in US military forces to support Japan, based on the Obama administration’s current interpretation of American obligations under the US–Japan defence treaty — even though the United States does not recognize either Chinese or Japanese legal sovereignty over the disputed islands.
It is particularly unfortunate that the United States could be boxed into defending Tokyo’s claims to islands it acquired by conquest in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war.
An analogous situation occurred in 2004 when Taiwan took actions that could have triggered a war with China and involved the United States because of US treaty obligations. Fortunately, the Bush administration warned Taiwan to curb its aggressive behavior and avoided a conflict.
There is no lack of proposals from policy experts, in the United States and Asia, on how to mitigate, defuse and ultimately resolve island conflicts in the South China and East China Seas. Brookings expert Richard Bush has written insightfully on ways to prevent the ‘tragic’ scenarios he believes could come to pass between Japan and China in their island dispute. Nautilus senior associate Mark Valencia has laid out detailed prescriptions for a Code of Conduct to reduce the chances of conflict in the South China Sea.
I have argued that a solution could be reached if the United States negotiates a pull-back of all Chinese forces now engaged in patrolling Japanese territory from a defined security zone surrounding Japan. In any event, all countries involved in the island disputes should submit their claims for adjudication to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Only the Philippines has followed the latter approach thus far.
The sad truth is that expert proposals won’t come to anything if the country that now dominates the Asia Pacific — the United States — continues to look the other way when the threat of serious armed conflict over small islands arises. Expressing ‘hope’ and giving ‘encouragement’ for Asian countries to peacefully resolve these difficult disputes by themselves is not worthy of a country that has the diplomatic, political and military clout to push for and achieve conflict resolution. Needless to say, a largely hands-off attitude also does little to bolster the standing of the United States in the region.