A top down re-alignment for Asian Security

Spearhead Opinion – 30.01.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Events following the outbreak of WWI appear to have revived a recognition of China’s strategic importance and thriving natural resources.

Imperial Japan carving  its own opportunities, and considering itself as the ‘natural leader’ of Asia; put forth its 21 demands to the Chinese government during the war era; the crux of those demands aimed to entitle Japanese control of mining and infrastructure across China.

In that time, the US support for China against Japanese expansionism and threats remained firm, despite occasional efforts to deescalate tensions, the converging interests of Japan and US to enhance dominance across Asia Pacific- turned China into a battleground. The use of isolation and embargos was reciprocated by more seizures of territories. As each party viewed the other as provocative.

However,  After the seizure of Vietnam in 1941 (which back then was a French territory), the US and its allies decided to cut off the 90% of Japanese oil supply—most of which back then was supplied to Japan by the US, led to a direct assault on a US naval base at Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941, thereby actively  engaging both belligerents in the mess that was already brewing in the form of WWII and the US-Japan dispute was ‘ resolved’ in the form of atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a US occupation of Japan which ended in 1952.

A delicate balance was carved by the US was over the Japanese-Sino disputes, during the Cold War era- as both were viewed as strategically crucial; several issues including the war grievances, Taiwan and East China sea islands were more or less swept under the rug; thus producing a positive impact on the ties between the two neighbours, and apart from relatively minor incidents regarding respective national narratives on war history; the relations improved as trade and technology sharing increased. Japan has over the years offered its apologies, recognized its war crimes and offered development assistance to China..

Resurgence of old disputes:

A chain of concerning events was triggered in 2012 when the question of Senkaku Islands took the limelight; after the Japanese government purchased three islets; though they claimed it to be a precaution from letting the islands fall into the hands of the hyper nationalist Tokyo governor. It was viewed as an offence by the Chinese.

Tensions in the sea surged in the wake of joint US-Japan naval exercises near the contested waters in 2013 which led China to designate a revised air defense identification zone over its East China Sea limits, so did South Korea and Japan.

Chinese fighter jets were accused of violating the airspace during Russian-Chinese military exercises in 2014. Several incidents of back and forth violations have been on the rise since 2012.

Based on the UN Convention on the Law of Seas, the endpoint of the territorial waters which lay within 12 nautical miles (22.2km), is the starting point of a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone which extends till another 200 nautical miles ( 370km) ; which allows a country to exploit the living and nonliving subjects in the area. However, innocent passage is provided to foreign vessels (difference in interpretation of what all can be considered as a vessel has also played a role in heightening tensions, as some “vessels” can portray offensive posture; which happened in the case of seizing US Sea drone).

So, Exclusive economic zones overlap, as the total width of the East China Sea is 360 nautical miles (666km) (south Korea’s EEZ also overlaps) 

In the case of China and Japan- apart from their respective historical claims of the islands that stand in the East China Sea- the issue gets more complicated in the case of the Senkaku islands which are positioned in the southern zone of the East China sea. Further, bringing Taiwan into territorial claims , as parts of this disputed zone also fall under Taiwan’s EEZ.

The UNCLOS also provides an addition of 150 nautical miles at the end of the EEZ— the continental shelf; which allows a country to exploit non living subjects with this range.

Based on EIA’s data the East China Sea contains  200 million barrels of oil reserves ,undiscovered resources can be as high as 70 to 160 billion barrels of oil for the entire East China Sea and plenty of fish.

Both China and Japan stand as two of the top consumers of oil and gas ,in years to come; the two resources are likely to play a major role in catering to  their future energy needs.

Based on a core common demand, the Chinese and Japanese have collaborated on exploration activities in the East China Sea, even in areas near Okinawa , though the Chunxiao gas fields which are in the Chinese EEZ have raised Japanese concerns over a possible covert exploitation from right under Japan’s zone given the close proximity.

So in the light common needs, close/overlapping proximities, economic aspirations , and the ability to coexist and work together despite the past; the sane solution would be for Japan and China to collaborate on utilising the resources of the East China Sea instead of contesting for sole ownership.

Rethinking the Japanese approach on East China Sea:

But, Japan positioned as an alternative bridge between the East and West – is also prone to the oscillations of the changing realities of either side of the Pacific, the fall of Imperial Japan has placed certain restrains over its movements and in retrospect , China is now viewed as the old-Japan.

The journey of Japan and US has not been without contentions, primarily in areas of military ties, independence of foreign policy and imbalances, the trade frictions saw their peak post-cold war era and were only subdued once China’s prominence grew stronger especially since 2000 onwards.

The Japanese were handed back their sovereignty in 1952 after losing it to the US in 1945. The decision concluded with the signing of the Treaty of  San Francisco, which was later amended -due to oppositions over lack of sovereign rights- and renamed as the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan.

Amongst several provisions; The treaty calls for a mutual consent and then an action by both parties or either party, incase ‘either of the nation’s territory is attacked’ and also emphasizes the involvement of UN to resolve disputes in case a conflict erupts.  

But, Japan has renounced war as its sovereign right and has forbidden itself to use threat of ‘use of force’ and credits a higher value to the role of UN.

However, wrapped in ambiguity of legal texts; Japan does maintain “Self Defense Forces” though smaller in number, are still considered formidable due to advanced technology advantage…

But nonetheless, the pact of ‘mutual alliance’ and Japan’s so called self imposed limits provides US with a stronger ‘’legal basis’’ to maintain its forces in the region under the pretext of Japan’s defence, and stability in East Asia.

And, Ironically, the support for defending “Freedom of Navigation”– not so much– as the US has till date not officially ratified the UNCLOS, but ‘verbally’ claims commitment .

The US maintains several bases and facilities across Japan, especially in Okinawa islands in the East China Sea, the territorial disputes between China and Japan  primarily fall in the East China Sea, thereby bestowing a unique legal justification for US engagement  in case a dispute erupts.

Though over the years, The US stood firm over its stance of non-involvement in disputed areas , but that too witnessed a change, when Obama in 2014 conferred US support over any island disputes.    

The Japanese-US military alliance has for several years remained a point of concern for the Chinese.

It also appears that since post-WWII , The US stood as an uncontested power of the Pacific, the rise of China and calls for rebalancing would most likely make resource sharing issues of Japan and China in East China Sea, slightly difficult to resolve, because sole ownership each of these tiny islets not only extends rights over what lies above and beneath them but also carries the ability to limit the opponent’s ‘freedom of navigation’ as the limits of ‘’territorial waters’ increase.

But, right beneath the East China sea is carved out a very important trade route , starting from Bab-el Mandeb, to Strait of Hormuz, across the Arabian Sea , down to the Indian Ocean , through the Straits of the Malaysian-Indonesian and Singaporean zone, across the muddled South China Sea and East China sea all the way to the respective countries– China and Japan topping as the top users of this route.

Several US administered islands already fall in close proximities to these contentious zones, provocations under ‘legal basis’, poking on sensitive issues such as Taiwan’s legal status; culminates to weakening a key Chinese supply line-  and for China– given its major reliance on this belt– becomes somewhat of a life and death issue; thereby leaving it with not much choice but to retaliate– and in extremely unfortunate circumstances– lead to a similar chain of events that followed Pearl Harbour.

Japan’s somewhat self punishing measures and high faith in UN for conflict resolution may suggest that there is a slight  contrast with the US-  in the approaches to resolve security crises ; and though the Treaty of mutual corperation is no – till death do us apart- arrangement, and allows either party to withdraw whenever they desire.

But, given the US presence in and around Japan , it is unlikely for Japan to engage itself in such a controversial move.

Similarly, the burgeoning Sino-Japanese relations in the past suggests that ideally Japan may not desire to engage in a direct conflict with China either.

But, given the mutually binding nature of the text and the difference in what the US and Japan may perceive as a threat creates a dangerous ambiguity.

Therefore, standing on the frontline; Japan might have to undertake a more independent stance on balancing the ties.

As for China ; given its perpetual energy requirements and surges in exports, pushes it to safeguard its routes. The US too, is not seeking for a rebalance solely out of hedonistic desires to ruin the world, these routes are also crucial for the US; apart from the possible energy crises of the future, an issue of ‘’maximum capacity’’ of these routes also stands–especially in regards to the traffic passing through the narrow straits.

Given the predicted future economic growth of the Asian region , traffic along the sea routes would also increase; Several reports are pointing out to the Maritime ‘safety’ crises.

Another daunting prediction reveals that due to the tectonic activities , the Strait of Gibraltar would close up; who knows how the issue would be dealt with; but it will nonetheless, impact global trade, and possibly add further pressure on the other existing trade routes. So naturally, for both – China and US– and in the larger framework; the entire world’s scramble for energy resources, land and water etc is understandable. But, the difference lies in tackling the issue.

An aggressive stance in the midst of crises usually worsens situations and given the advancements in weapons, military strengths, reformed alliances– aiming for a zero sum solution is very impractical and destructive.

China, is developing extensive global networks , in hopes of safeguarding itself from such future crises , but it must be noticed it’s OBOR vision pretty much sends out an open invitation to the world. The division of loads across seas and lands would have a positive impact globally as without it- the world would witness transport overload crises.

Further, it develops and improves infrastructure, thus increasing accessibility to remote regions, which may increase opportunities for useful exploration and exploitation.

Pakistan’s role in the ‘’Rebalance’’:

In the case of Japan: apart from finding renewable energy solutions, its dependance on oil and gas would remain prominent;as nuclear energy faces widespread opposition and is therefore more or less of the table.

Providing Japan with the opportunity to utilise alternative trade routes via Pakistan , may help in de-escalating tensions.

Apart from the recent food crises, Japan also witnesses ‘fruit’ crises, which some believe are due to land scarcity– Several fruit producers in the Gilgit -Baltistan region aspire for a boost to their business as a result of the CPEC; the low level of pollution and no-pesticide policy in those regions, further, fulfils another japanese requirement.

Another reason for rise in tensions between China and Japan was due to a reduction in Chinese exports of its rare earth metals, which are crucial to both Japan and China as several are required in designing key components of their electronic products.

Therefore, securing a flow of these raw materials is crucial to keep Japan up and running.

Joint exploration projects in the mineral and rare earth metal regions of Pakistan; could be conducted by the three respective nations.

Lastly, in the recent past , Japan has voiced support for coal and is developing advanced clean coal technologies; not only does a prominent opportunity stands in Pakistan , but China , under the CPEC vision already focuses on this area— a collaboration with Japan in this area could also occur, as despite the tensions it maintains energy ties with China and has diversified into Russia as well.

In what appears to be an awkward moment of silence between an estranged couple; the fact remains that the US and Pakistan do carry a unique bond. Acknowledging , that several of the core US apprehensions are not so different from anyone elses’ ; it then perhaps becomes a matter of morphing certain approaches.

Given the new administration’s keen eye for good business— As an icebreaking move; Pakistan could engage its old ally to carve out constructive business opportunities and take an active initiative in  push for bridging the Sino-US gap .

As escalated tensions/conflicts in the East China Sea, carry the potential to devastate the entire Asian region, therefore a responsibility befalls on all nations of the region to aim for constructive solutions.