Island disputes in the waters surrounding China seem to be all the rage of late. The Paracel, Spratly, and now the Senkaku/Diaoyutai island chains are being contested by the resource-hungry rising powers of East Asia. Will the world's next naval conflict be fought over these barely-emergent atolls and shoals? I'm beginning to worry that it might, and plan to be long gone from China when that does happen.
The surrounding fisheries might be reason enough to covet these islands--remote outcrops that support few if any humans, and in some cases only the odd goat or a few colonies of seabirds. But like many major conflicts in the world,the natural gas and/or oil below the seafloor seem to be the root of the problem. I doubt that China would see fit to attempt to claim the ENTIRE South China sea if not for the resources supposed to be down there, and I doubt the Chinese and Japanese would spend much time wrestling over the Diaoyu/Senkakus if not for the natural gas fields located squarely where Japan claims (and China disputes) the sea border between their two territories.
These disputes could be solved amicably through negotiations (China has certainly settled disputed borders with almost all of its other neighbors, excluding India), and many observers had thought that such a resolution was well on its way to reality--Japan and China had agreed to jointly exploit the gas reserves along their border. However, lately China has taken a bullying, sometimes petulant, approach. A zero-sum, winner takes all, Neocon approach to diplomacy seems to have taken root in Beijing. Why?
Is it that recent financial turmoil has given China's government a new confidence in its clout? Or, conversely, is this evidence of weakness: that China's central government is now beholden to the whims of a variety of special interest groups--populist, military, and industrial? Opaque in its methods and its considerations, it may be impossible to pinpoint a singular, main reason for the recent aggressiveness of China's foreign policy. Many possible culprits exist.
Chauvinist nationalism has been promoted among the populace to replace the defunct ideals of socialism (with or without Chinese characteristics); in recent years, China has reaped unpredictable dividends from this educational campaign. No longer do top leaders seem to have much leeway in negotiating foreign policy, particularly when it comes to territorial claims or protecting Chinese and Chinese interests overseas. Does it seem odd that an authoritarian government bows to populist pressure at all? Perhaps the politburo feels that giving in to populist pressure on foreign policy issues allows it to ignore demands for domestic reforms.
China's industrial/military complex--like in other major countries--seems to have grown in power and sway as well. Territorial claims (and bordering territories where China's cultural assimilation process is yet weak) certainly come under the remit of military concerns. Unfortunately, some of the top brass seem to have reached their melting points in these recent, relatively peaceful times. Several top generals have weighed in on a variety of border disputes, rarely with anything diplomatic to say, whether or not it aids China's foreign ministry. How much power do they exercise over China's leaders? Again, hard to say, but clearly the CCP can not rule without the aid of the military. As one of my Chinese friends put it: "The moment the army turns on the Communist Party, many of us would be happy to end one-party rule." Consequently, military aggressiveness, like populist chauvinism may be a force that cannot be contained, or as the Chinese might say, a tiger that must be ridden.
Last, industry may also play a large part in the unfolding drama of the barren islands. Steel price negotiations, revaluation of the yuan currency, and China's strategic loans to resource-rich countries have all shown the degree to which China's government and its business establishment have melded into one entity. Fossil fuels to be extracted so close and so cheaply could hardly fail to attract the interest of powerful bureaucrat-businessmen within the state-owned energy companies. I have read that Chinese negotiations to buyout Australian resource extraction company, Rio Tinto, were organized from the office of the premier, Wen Jiabao. Consequently, when Australian governmental and populist unease blocked the negotiations, anger reached to that very same lofty office in the official heirarchy. Retribution shortly followed. Is there a parallel to be seen?
While the Japanese have at last released the Chinese fishing trawler captain, the Chinese are now demanding an apology. An apology for a legal process and relatively quick release that would not have occurred had the shoe been on the other foot? This bodes badly for peace in the seas surrounding China, whether populism, militancy, industrial greed, or diplomatic overconfidence be the cause. I would wish to be neither fish nor trawler in those frought seas.