Things have been getting messy in Asia. Tensions are rising amidst the growing gulf between major regional powers. Beijing is livid over reports that the Japanese government has reached a deal to buy disputed islands in the East China Sea from their private owner and will be paying $26m to buy islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Japan controls the islands, which lie south of Okinawa and north of Taiwan, but China also claims them, as does Taiwan. Just a few weeks back Japan had arrested more than a dozen Chinese activists who had landed on part of a disputed island chain in the East China Sea on the anniversary of the end of World War II. The activists came from Hong Kong and wanted to evade Japanese authorities patrolling the islands to plant Chinese flags to claim the territory for China.
Such stand-offs are of course not new. Japan’s arrest and week-long detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain in 2010 after his vessel collided with Japanese patrol boats near the disputed islands triggered the worst diplomatic dispute in years between the countries, prompting Beijing to suspend some exports and cancel high-level talks. But the frequency of such episodes has been increasing and the diplomatic atmosphere has been getting vitiated.
As the balance of power shifts rapidly in China’s favour, there is a sense of turmoil in the region. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was in Beijing earlier this week but she failed to bridge the growing divide between China and the US over a whole range of issues including Iran, North Korea, Syria and South China Sea territorial disputes. The US is clearly struggling to respond even as China’s neighbours are panicking. There was global outrage in March 2010 over the Cheonan incident when North Korea torpedoed the 88-metre-long warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors (Chick 2010). It was the most lethal military attack by the North since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. And yet China’s support saved North Korea from paying any price. Apart from symbolic military exercises, Washington could do nothing substantive. Beijing’s response was muted, urging the restarting of the so-called six-party talks, involving the two Koreas, China Russia, Japan and the US, on the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme.
North Korean actions were bewildering and there were a range of explanations. There was a possibility that South Korean military exercises close to the North might have angered Pyongyang and so it may have decided to raise the stakes by firing on the South Korean island with a civilian population. The regime in North Korea might also be signalling that it is ready for negotiations and by provoking it might want to gain concessions in the next round of negotiations. North Korea wants bilateral negotiations with the US but the Obama Administration wants to be multilateral in its approach and has not held direct talks with the North. Washington’s policy remains one of not engaging until the North ceases provocations and demonstrates that it is living up to its past commitments to dismantle, and ultimately give up, its nuclear capability.
China has given no hint that it is rethinking its policy of almost complete support for the North Korean regime. After working in close coordination with successive US Administrations when it came to dealing with North Korea, China has moved to embrace Pyongyang more tightly and ignore Obama Administration’s entreaties to rein in North Korea. China has strengthened its ties with Pyongyang by hosting Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea. Beijing refused to criticise Pyongyang for the Cheonan incident, jeopardising its growing ties with South Korea. China refuses to accept the conclusions of a joint inquiry that the Cheonan was indeed sunk by a North Korean torpedo and watered down the UN Security Council condemnation of the assault. At the UN, it delayed the release of a report that alleged that North Korea may have transferred ballistic missile and nuclear technology to Syria, Iran and Burma.
China has justified this support by pointing out that if the North Korean government collapsed, hundreds of thousands of refugees would flow over their boundary. But the Chinese Communist Party views the survival of the North Korean regime as a key to the maintenance of its own rule. North Korea is viewed as an important buffer between China and South Korea and American soldiers stationed there.
In so doing, China has not only bolstered US-South Korean and US-Japanese alliances but has also damaged its own credibility as a responsible rising power. It has raised questions about China’s willingness to engage in regional affairs at a level commensurate with its rising power status.
And then there is the South China Sea. When Beijing claimed that it considered its ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as a “core interest,” fears increased in Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia that China is seeking to use its growing maritime might to dominate not only the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the South China Sea but also its crucial shipping lanes, the lifeline of regional economies.
And there have been concerns in the region about America’s commitment to regional security.
It is in this larger context that New Delhi has to manage its much touted ‘Look East’ policy. As it increases is economic and military presence in East and Southeast Asia, it will be asked to articulate a policy that responds to the growing tensions in the region. How it responds to this challenge will be a real test of Indian diplomatic maturity.
The writer teaches at King’s College, London, and is the author of The China Syndrome