Serious Power Shift in Asia – Japan and the US Rendered Helpless

Posted on October 8, 2010

The US appears to be “losing” the war in Afghanistan.  In another important arena, Japan, one of America’s staunchest allies, appears to have lost a recent, important confrontation with China.  In early September, Chinese fishing boats entered Japanese waters off the disputed Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu by China.  The disputed islands are controlled by Japan, but are also claimed by Taiwan and China Nothing more than rock outcroppings, these islands are uninhabitable.  However, oil and gas reserves are considered extensive.  These are also rich fishing grounds.

But all of this unfolded in an area in which the US has had control.  Taiwan also has claims to the islands.  But the US also has extensive agreements with Japan:

The United States’ position has, thus far, been carefully staked out.[1] On the one hand, Washington has refused to take a formal position on ultimate sovereignty over the islets. Washington would clearly prefer to see the entire situation peaceably resolved. At the same time, however, the U.S. has noted that the islands are under the purview of the 1960 U.S.–Japan Security Treaty, since that treaty covers all territories under the administration of Japan—which would include the Senkakus.

Where U.S. and Chinese interests potentially collide is in the security implications of this incident. While the islets themselves have little strategic value, recent Chinese assertiveness about control of the Yellow Sea, South China Sea, and the larger East China Sea have set Washington and Beijing at odds. Chinese demands that the U.S. not engage in joint exercises with its ally South Korea in the wake of the North Korean sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan, as well as Chinese harassment of U.S. oceanographic survey vessels, hint at a broader Chinese campaign aimed at establishing dominance over the waters within the “first island chain,” which encompasses the East China Sea.

The blurring of the lines between Chinese government and civilian roles is exacerbated by past Chinese use of civilian fishing boats to press territorial claims. Indeed, several of the vessels that harassed the USNS Impeccable as well as the USS John S. McCain III were civilian fishing boats. This precedent raises the fundamental question of whether the current Senkakus crisis was precipitated deliberately by the PRC government through the use of a civilian vessel as a stalking horse. []

China has been developing more real influence globally than the United States.  Its relations with countries in South America have been more successful; it is firmly established in Africa with agreements over precious resources and in the middle East, it has trade relations with Iran and Pakistan.  Currently developing weaponry that can control the movements of large US carriers near its waters, you could say that China and the US are at a critical phase in their military and economic relations. This is the real story in the latest standoff in the region: China has pulled ahead and now has the psychological if not the military edge.

A recent article in al Jazeera (English) made a strong case that in the recent confrontation with China, Japan blinked and the rest of the region shuddered.

Not only did China get its way, everyone else saw it, and saw how it was done, too. You can’t imagine Vietnam, with its own territorial dispute with China, feeling any safer. Or the rest of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Or South Korea. Or the people of Japan, as they watch their leaders capitulate.

Suddenly, everyone desires a referee in all this. Suddenly, everyone wouldn’t mind too much if the United States were around more often. China might have gotten its way this time, but perhaps at the cost of a more vigilant America. [al Jazeera (English)]

“…[P]erhaps at the cost of a more vigilant America”?  America was vigilant. You don’t maintain troops in Japan and South Korea and not remain vigilant.  China knows the US weakness at this time better than another country and it is taking advantage of that.  This is the real story here.

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