Regional power confronts China over East Sea

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Japan rebukes unilateral actions over disputed area

 
Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (L) talks to the Philippine's Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario (R) during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Australia ministerial meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on July 11.Photo: AFP

China's East Sea belligerence has provoked yet another non-stakeholder to confront it.

At a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Wednesday (July 11), Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said Tokyo has "a great deal of interest" in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea, as the stability of sea lanes is vital for the economy of every country in the region, Japan's Kyodo News reported.

"Unilateral actions must be abstained from and problems must be settled peacefully through dialogue," Gemba told his counterparts from the 10-member ASEAN grouping.

Though Tokyo may not have a direct stake in the East Sea, it has every interest in ensuring tensions do not worsen, analysts said.

"Increasingly, Tokyo is acting on that interest," said Ian Storey, a maritime security analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.

"Japan has significant economic and security interests in the South China Sea and has been increasingly alarmed at negative developments over the past few years, particularly on-going tensions between China and the Philippines and China and Vietnam," Storey told Vietweek.

"It's significant that Japan is willing to antagonize China over a territorial dispute in which Tokyo has no direct stake (notwithstanding its own, separate territorial frictions with Beijing)."

China and four ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - all claim territory in the East Sea.

The area is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. The sea lanes also carry Japanese goods to big markets in Southeast Asia and Europe, and 90 percent of Japan's crude oil imports pass over those waters.

But economic security is not the only legitimate concern for Japan, Storey said.

"The other problem is that if Beijing intimidates its way into dominance of the South China Sea, it could replicate that tactic in the East China Sea where Japan and China directly bicker over territory," he said.

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"If China coaxes or coerces its Southeast Asian neighbors into accepting the questionable justifications for its claims to sovereignty and "˜historic rights' in the sea, existing legal norms such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will be undermined.

"This could dilute Japan's claim to ownership of the Senkaku Islands (which China calls the Diaoyus) in the East China Sea, if Beijing decides to use similar arguments."

Japan summoned the Chinese ambassador on Wednesday as a diplomatic row flared over the Senkaku Islands. The row erupted after three Chinese patrol boats approached the islands, and led China's foreign minister, meeting with his Japanese counterpart at the ASEAN forum in Cambodia, to insist the islands had been Chinese "since ancient times," AFP reported.

Hardliners rule

China has invoked historical rights in its East Sea claims. Maritime lawyers note Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims with reference to the so-called nine-dash line that takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea on Chinese maps.

"It appears that the "˜hardliners' have the upper hand," said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-expert on the dispute.

"This is an awkward position to defend legally and politically and it also raises freedom of navigation issues because historic waters are traditionally internal waters with no freedom of navigation," Valencia said.

"China has or allowed itself to be diplomatically painted into a corner (but) its enemies should not rejoice because this is actually dangerous."

A slew of squabbles between China and ASEAN claimants in the East Sea had led to protracted negotiations on a formal code of conduct. In 2002 the parties involved issued a Declaration of Conduct (DOC) and China finally agreed last July on the guidelines that would form the basis for drafting a code of conduct.

But analysts have said China would not want a robust and enforceable code of conduct on the East Sea.

Progress on the code of conduct hit yet another stalemate Wednesday. A joint statement to be issued by ASEAN foreign ministers was also held up as countries wrangled over whether to include a reference to recent spats over the area, AFP reported.

The Philippines wants the statement to mention a recent standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, which it claims, but summit organizer Cambodia opposed Manila's proposal, the newswire quoted diplomatic sources as saying. It said further that Southeast Asian diplomats described the division on the joint statement as "sharp" and the discussions "intense."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Cambodia for a wider regional Asian summit on Thursday, with Washington also pushing for progress on reducing friction in a key shipping lane that is vital to the world economy.

"We look to ASEAN to make rapid progress with China toward an effective code of conduct in order to ensure that as challenges arise, they are managed and resolved peacefully," Clinton said in Vietnam on Tuesday.

Analysts said in a worst scenario from an ASEAN perspective, the China-US rivalry could feed upon and reinforce itself, becoming a serious political conflict dominating the South China Sea issues.

"This would leave the South China Sea disputes to fester, and tension would wax and wane in action/reaction dynamics," Valencia said.

"International oil companies would shy away and exploration would remain in limbo. This would be truly unfortunate - not only for the people of Southeast Asia but for peace and stability in the region."

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