A history professor once told me that if it weren’t for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, much of American international relations discourse would revolve around China instead of Iraq and Afghanistan. The sentiment of U.S. influence floundering behind China’s spectacular economic ascendancy is indeed troubling. The Chinese army seems prepared for any form of combat — be it on land, in the air or out in the sea. One does not have to look farther than the titles of new books on China to get the notion that the entire world seems to be endlessly fretting about China’s current status: “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea, and the End of a Stable Pacific” by Robert D. Kaplan; “Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations” by Nina Hachigian; and “Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money, and Minds” by David M. Lampton.
It was only a little over a month ago when a group of local Filipino fishermen was allegedly attacked by the Chinese Coast Guard with water cannons. The fishermen had only been conducting their business on the waters of Scarborough Shoal, considered to be part of the territory of the Philippines.
The dilemma arises when China claimed that the region of water, better known as the South China Sea, is also rightfully theirs. The proper ownership of the South China Sea is highly contested by many countries including Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. Of course, the state with the greatest military might will patrol the waters without much challenge from its weaker counterparts.
According to one account, the Philippines consistently expressed its apprehensions about Chinese maritime encroachment. Such vocalization is not going completely unnoticed by the Unites States, which has taken a neutral stance on the territorial dispute of Scarborough Shoal. Nonetheless, the United States is indeed obligated to take action on behalf of the mutual defense treaty it signed with the Philippines. The Philippines requested that the United Nations International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea interpret China’s claim.
According to one Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, she does not know the details of the incident nor does she want to comment.
The one state most likely to challenge Chinese power over disputed sea territory is Japan, arguably the most industrialized and modern nation in Asia, with the exception of South Korea and Singapore in Southeast Asia. The specific dispute between the two Asian powers is a small cluster of islands dubbed the “Senkaku” islands by the Japanese and “Diaoyutai” islands by the Chinese. The fact that both countries refer to these islands with their respective names reflect their equally passionate claims of having legitimate territorial ownership.
What makes this small cluster of islands so valuable? For one thing, they provide important ports and shipping lanes, offer abundant fishing grounds and may even hold valuable oil and gas resources. The islands’ distance from Taiwan, moreover, makes for a strategic location. Taiwan, by the way, also claim the islands as their very own.
Similar to the Philippines, the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan if violence somehow ensues between Japan and China. In other words, the U.S. is putting a lot of faith that China does not make any rash moves that could be interpreted by Japan as an act of war. Japanese and Chinese sentiment on island ownership is fierce, if not downright virulent, with both sides sometimes even resorting to racially prejudiced remarks against the other. In China, for example, there have been protesters destroying Japanese-made cars and Japanese-imported products in response to Japan’s claim of territorial ownership.
With American allegiance on its side, Japan is planning to specialize in amphibious operations. The island country plans to establish a force equivalent to the U.S. Marine Corps. In the words of one military official, “We hope the Japanese side will make good on its commitment of pursuing the path of peaceful development and make a contribution to regional peace and stability.”