Why Asia’s Maritime Disputes Are Not Just About China

When it comes to feuds in the Pacific over islands and what lies beneath, it's not simply a case of China against everyone else

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Dondi Tawatao / Getty Images

Anti-China protester and former Philippine police officer Abner Afuang burns a Chinese flag in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila on July 27, 2012

Much of the international coverage and commentary about the disputes over islands in East Asian waters has concentrated on the battle in the South China Sea for territory and resources. And much of that has been framed as a morality play in which China is the villain, most other Asian nations are victims, and the U.S. is a Solomonic figure. On Aug. 10 the Wall Street Journal, referring to Beijing, published an editorial titled “The Bully of the South China Sea.” In another article, Robert Manning of the Washington-based Atlantic Council wrote: “It is one thing if, in a rules-based world, China seeks a larger role in shaping the rules, commensurate with increased economic and political weight. It is quite another if the message is simply about power.” Even Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and an unabashed booster of the global rise of Asia and in particular China, has been critical of Beijing. In a syndicated column Mahbubani said that “China has begun to make serious mistakes” in its dealings with its neighbors.

To be sure, China has upped the ante in the South China Sea stakes and angered, in particular, some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Beijing has established the Sansha municipality and garrison on an island in the Paracels, which China as well as Vietnam and Taiwan claim. It has engaged in a tense naval standoff with the Philippines over a reef called Scarborough Shoal. It has invited foreign companies to tender for oil and gas in disputed waters. The reasons that pundits give for Beijing’s bellicosity range from its appetite for the natural resources of the South China Sea to its desire to look tough amid an uncertain leadership transition and to stir some nationalist fervor at home (witness the violent anti-Japanese protests on the mainland during the weekend) to its irritation at what it thinks is Washington’s interference in its backyard. At a regional conference two years ago, in remarks now often cited as a sign of China’s unilateral ambitions in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi infamously declared the body of water to be a “core national interest,” adding: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

(MORE: Turf Wars: A Guide to East Asia’s Maritime Disputes)

It is, but there are other, wider truths. When it comes to feuds in the Pacific over islands and what lies beneath, it’s not simply a case of China against everyone else. Depending on the dispute, it’s also South Korea vs. Japan, Japan vs. Taiwan, Taiwan vs. Vietnam, Vietnam vs. Cambodia and numerous other permutations — for many of the same reasons supposedly behind China’s actions. Resource grab. Patriotic posturing. Historical baggage (mostly to do with Japan’s brutal occupation of most of East Asia before and through World War II). Referring to the South China Sea, former ASEAN secretary general Rodolfo Severino, who now heads Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, wrote recently that “all claimants feel their footholds are essential to what they consider their national interests … This clash of national interests … makes it most difficult even to appear to be making compromises on national integrity or maritime regimes and, thus, almost impossible to resolve [the] disputes.”

Washington says it wants to help keep the peace and to ensure that sea lanes remain free (about a third of the world’s maritime trade passes through these waters). In recent weeks the U.S. has been vocal about what it thinks about the disputes. The State Department said Beijing’s Sansha maneuvers “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” When U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently met in Washington with his counterpart from Japan, he called again for a “code of conduct” to be set up, especially between China and ASEAN. Such a code, Washington has stated repeatedly, could govern action when an incident like the one in Scarborough Shoal occurs. Said Panetta: “The U.S. will do whatever we can to work with Japan and others to ensure that is the approach we take.” The next day the Foreign Ministry in Beijing ordered in the U.S. embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Robert Wang, and essentially told Washington to butt out.

(MORE: South China Sea Disputes: Is This How War Starts?)

From Beijing’s perspective, the U.S. is taking sides. Besides its traditional allies in the region — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines — Washington has been especially supportive of one of China’s historical rivals, Vietnam, over the South China Sea. While Washington portrays itself as an honest broker, the more cynical reckon the U.S. is adopting the thinking: the enemy of my enemy is my friend — which is how Beijing probably sees it. As Severino writes, “The Chinese fear that those who try to prevent or resent their country’s rise might use the South China Sea to contain it.”

While most East Asian governments welcome the U.S. diplomatic and military “pivot” to the region, they also don’t want China further antagonized. During the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, chair Cambodia “vetoed” the Washington-backed code of conduct for the association as a whole to deal with China over the South China Sea (as opposed to the bilateral, one-on-one negotiations Beijing wants, which give it more leverage). Many international commentators vilified Phnom Penh for kowtowing to Beijing. But if so, it has good reason: China is Cambodia’s biggest investor and donor; Phnom Penh would have miscalculated by acting against the wishes of its No. 1 patron. That’s just realpolitik. “Perfect neutrality is impossible when some [ASEAN] members are formal allies with one power, or receive large amounts of high-profile aid from another,” writes Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone, a book about the geopolitics of the region. Here are another couple of truths. First, another ASEAN chair might have acted the same too. Even though its economy is softening, China remains the main driver of economic growth in East Asia. Second, not every ASEAN member has a dog in the South China Sea fight. Why risk enraging the dragon for Vietnam and the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Brunei?

Amid East Asia’s island fever, there’s big and small, strong and weak, rich and poor, and enlightened and unenlightened self-interest. But not as innocent as good vs. evil.

MORE: War’s Legacy Plagues Japan and Its Neighbors

99 comments
IcepaxKnight
IcepaxKnight

China tried hard to shed its image of the "Weak Man of Asia" since WW2. However, instead of achieving its goal, China has further cemented its image by bullying smaller neighbors like Viet Nam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. This mentality is further highlighted by its weak responses to encounters with the U.S. and Russian armed forces in recents years, or non-military encounters with these countries. If China has the mental attitude to pick on smaller nations, then it should also has the gut to stand up to its equal or better. Else, it's just a weak man of Asia flexing its muscles. Nothing more.

joethansmith
joethansmith

C'mon bring it on.....Philippines is always ready. History tells we aint back off from nobody. Your inexperienced soldiers will be ducking ours sooner or later!.....no more reasons, BRING IT ON! We'll see who's braver.

pingchenli
pingchenli

flagging comments? some people are sore losers!!! the comment by rory is probably imporant and useful enough to be flagged by dumb comments resulting to a flagging war of supposedly levelheaded people with gits

aragornn23
aragornn23

Just like the Chinese people being brain-washed by their communist government.. Being intruded in the past doesn't give China the right to act like a bully now just because they are starting to enjoy the kind of power and influence that they never had before. How hypocritical to complain on other country's power and influence when China itself greedily wants to have the same kind of power and influence in their own worse way. Good thing the West is way too powerful coz if not China will act like a "man possessed" and "uncontrollable" given their line of thinking and reasoning. Communists will never rule.

Hostrave
Hostrave

Imagine this: You have a huge military, you have an economic might, and if you were China with nothing more could wish for, you would do the same right? 

Piss all over the place and damn grab those resources from militarily weak, economic dirt poor neighbors of yours. 

Now you do you understand? because I understand. 

  

China is testing how far it's expansion could reach until someone or somebody reacts, that started with India, then diverts back to Russia,  wait for the calm and strike back South China Sea expansion to the Philippines and Vietnam, back to East with Korea and Japan. That's plain and simple. China a late bloomer trying hard imperialist.  

Matthew C
Matthew C

Time magazine actually has an opinion on world issues, that's a good start. Unfortunately the commenters haven't gotten any smarter. There are many complex issues behind the disputes, obviously. Even if the US wants to turn this into China bashing, it would just cause more controversy than good. The path of imperialistic nations is to believe they can impose solutions on others. That applies to all of the world powers involved..

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Roubini Says 2013 `Storm' May Surpass 2008 Crisis PITFALLS WE MAY NOT KNOW Citigroup chief executive Vikram Pandit has rejected the idea of big banks being split up, media report said on Tuesday. Vikram Pandit said Citi, formed through mergers such as the acquisition of Travelers in 1998, had already gone back to the basics of banking, and had sold most of the units from that deal. "What's left here is essentially the old Citicorp. That's a tried and proven strategy. Why did it work? Because it was a strategy based upon operating the business and serving clients and not a strategy based on deal making. That's the fundamental difference," he is quoted as saying. He said Citi took almost 50 percent of its business from emerging markets and was "banking on the fact that the growth story is intact" for Asia and the southern hemisphere broadly, despite the slowdown in China. . I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed. -Ernest Hemingway, author and journalist, Nobel laureate (1899-1961)

adam_onge
adam_onge

China is upset, because in its naive arrogance, it assumed that all Southeast Asian nations should be happy to live under the "Protective Umbrella of the Han Chinese". Unfortunately for China, even smaller nations don't always like to be bullied (and making historical imperialistic claims doesn't help). If China had shown more respect for the less powerful countries, there could have been some compromises made, but China is quite adamant about its territorial claims (the nine-dashed line is a core Chinese interest?). They are now using the time-honored strategy of splitting up ASEAN (Laos and Cambodia are already "bribed" by the Chinese) and making this issue become a partisan choice between the US and China (I don't quite understand why China would want to antagonize the Americans?). Anyway the situation is very volatile and it almost looks like China doesn't have too many friends left in the region (except North Korea and possibly Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar).

Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo
Matthew Tarazed ChanTwo

any comment reader who wants true insight on matters relating to the article, please ignore Threedee Pete as he has no clue what he is talking about. To me and possibly many others, he thinks that kissing americas ass will one day grant him american citizenship. Enjoy the rest of the comments!

9ART9NB
9ART9NB

Always look on the bright side of life, 50 years ago China's GDP is about 2.5% of the world GDP, today after decades of business involvement with the US and Western countries PRC is now the world 2nd largest economy and 28% of the world GDP, in fact China has helped the US and Western businesses to many success stories. Possibly the PRC have created billion of jobs around the world, especially US and Europe, thanks to China technologies we now have BMW, Mercedes, Honda, Ford, Toyota, Subaru, Audi, Bentley, Ferrari to travel from B to A; for air travel we have Boeing, Airbus.....without China market these Aircraft manufacturers have nothing to work on; also the world most advanced washing machine (water saving/energy efficient) are invented in China, IT and WWW is also invented by a Chinese person named Wei Wu Wei!; 

me not responsible for what written above, since it's so foggy, I often write tomorrow today news!

rory2012
rory2012

Don't listen to what the Chinese government told you.Just study the western media and US foreign policy with her posture then make up your mind who your friend is.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

I am noticing that many if not most of the posts that take a negative view of China are flagged for review this morning.

TIME I really think your editors need to take a look into this.

K-Rue
K-Rue

Japan just dicovered the valuable underground resouces around Senkaku, and that's when China started paying attention to the islands. They didn't give a single intrest about that before. Plus, alot of the Chinese needs publicicty stunts to raise their political popularity. Also, Japan has one of the world's most weakest military powers and it's weakening every year which is a great time to bring up territorial disputes. Same with Russia and Korea.

Threedee Pete
Threedee Pete

To the author: "Why risk enraging the "Dragon??"So there goes the neutrality down the drain. So is the author suggesting that countries especially the US should just let China do whatever it wants in the region even if its illegal and not according to laws? Coz the author is implying that China is the main dog in the region and everybody are just nuisance. And some bright poster even said this is "Great unbiased article". Perhaps another Communist sympathizer. "Why risk enraging the Dragon??" That question speaks a whole lot! It speaks about people who would just bow down to an up and coming power country and let them wreck havoc at the expense of smaller countries and not care whether it will commit atrocities in the process or not. China can rise without losing the respect of its neighbors. It can rise without resorting to bullying and creating enemies in the process. It can rise without disrespecting International Law, particularly at sea. Just one close look at the map and any logical person would see what is fair or not..But then again, "Why risk enraging the Dragon?" right? Some people just feeds the ego of some country and encourages them to do more harm and bully the others, just because they are the "main driver of economic growth in East Asia." That's how to justify the wrong.

IQMinusOne
IQMinusOne

The picture really shows which side the US is on. The most recent news is about China protesting Japan but the reporter feels that displaying China being protested is better.

The Americans, and previous colonists, set up the disputes in the first place. And now the US is provoking every side for excuses of interfering.

I think the Chinese government is actually playing the cards correctly. That is to use the situation as reasons for military buildup, and eventually US influence might be driven away. There is almost zero chance of any Asian countries firing a first shot when the US is present in the region. The US actually might be the first to do so when it becomes obvious it has to go.

Tim Shaw
Tim Shaw

Great unbiased article that I've read on this topic. Horrible comments though... Everybody need to ctfo.

Threedee Pete
Threedee Pete

These clowns would use their advantage in quantity to control even this forums to try to flag comments which are damaging to them and which they couldn't refute. Typical uncivilized Communist way of controlling things in an unfairly manner just so to gain the upperhand. Pathetic!

Threedee Pete
Threedee Pete

If the Chinese government and its sympathizers will insist on sticking with their ancient historical records as proof of their claims to lands which are clearly not theirs and their clear dislike and hatred on the US and the Americans, then here's one piece of history for you; If not for the West, all of you in Mainland China would be speaking Japanese language by now bowing your ass out endlessly to your Japanese conquerors and without the West you won't get to where you are now, that's the cold painful truth, you ungrateful braggarts. Stay in your own backyard!

Guest
Guest

its time for the japanese to start building their defense forces in response to the Chinese aggression. the chinese can squeal all they want about ww2, but they obviously haven't learnt their lesson

Threedee Pete
Threedee Pete

These clowns would justify the past wrong doings of other countries and the sufferings it brought to people so they can suggest that China should do the same because they are now capable. How twisted the minds and reasoning of these geniuses! For them, they would right the wrong by doing another wrong! But its to their advantage and at the expense of other smaller countries. Typical imperialistic mind. And there you go guys, welcome to the minds of the Communists and how their mind works and reason out at present.

D_evil
D_evil

Look. The Chinese hate the Japanese, for what they did in China.  This is payback time.

Christopher Chan
Christopher Chan

The one standing the greatest to benefit in the ires of neighbor disputes are the thug countries trafficking weapons 

hkispee
hkispee

china is funny, it lost all war in history and declare all these islands belong to them.

chinese were the lowest class

people in all places ruled by mongols.

sorry to mention this.

chinese were the lowest class

slaves (4th class) in manchu empire, again sorry to mention this.

1) manchu (the master)

2.)mongols 3) muslim 4) chinese

chinese were much lower than

austrlian aboriginal in British empire.

sorry to mention this.

manchurian ruled china for

300 year, till 1911,

then japan ruled 2/3 of china

since 1937 till one day before the end of WWII.

in 1979, china attacked

vietnam, in 3 weeks they lost 30,000,

´the death rate was at least

2 chinese:1

china advanced 17km and ran

back

and chinese declared china

won.

http://www.globalsecurity.org/... 

Threedee Pete
Threedee Pete

I'm not against the general Chinese people, coz obviously they're being violated by their own government as well. What I resent is their Communist Government who only get to feel their new found power acts like a bully now, that goes to show their mentality and how desperate they are for power. They complain of the US's influence and power but look at them working so hard to have the same capability and wants to DO THE SAME if given the chance, the difference is, I'm sure, with their type of thinking and reasoning it will be much much worse for the world if they succeed. I can't imagine a world dominated or ruled by Communists. Hell No! But I'm at peace and calm knowing that in the Bible itself, you will never find a passage that symbolizes China to be any kind of significance or being triumphant at that in the End of Days. So keep dreaming Communists.

99Pcent
99Pcent

Asia's problem is not China, it is the CCP and the PLA. Both are mafia outfits. 

Duke Thai
Duke Thai

While it is a matter of national interest, China has been shamelessly bullying its neighbors and wielding its new found power clumsily. Just look at the 9 dots line claim. Only goons amp; thugs would would do that. Too bad, there are good people in China but thugs are ruling the country right now. Funny that China don't want to touch the nutty NK. Obviously, China's message is: "You don't have weapons of mass destruction, you shall submit." So expect all the neighbors of China build nuclear bombs in a very near future.

 

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

Chinese thuggery at its best,  But then again after 50 years of watching the USA and USSR/Russia from the sidelines is any one really surprised by this?

rory2012
rory2012

One thing Chinese learn for the last two hundred years from the imperial countries such as Britain,Japan and the US, is guns and warships speak louder.Even the Chinese educated and brought up in believing love your neighbors and respect other,in return people take you as a fool and being sign of weakness.In modern history,US show the world bad example that is powerful military country gives order and law of jungle ruled.Because of this attitude of the US,every countries try to develop nuclear weapon  whenever they get the chance to secure their survival and bargain power.So US citizens step up and be view as a world peace contributor and a fair judge with your mighty power.

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

There is no illness, no ill will no love no cash no economy

now. When the leaders tell tales we have only problems ..No WMD Y2K gone we are

still groping in the gloom and no idea who id telling truth, who to believe and

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former President Bush last month I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA