Saturday, July 14, 2012

Peace adrift off China, sinking rapidly

J Michael Cole has another superb piece in The Diplomat, this one on the China-Taiwan-Japan confrontation over the Senkaku Islands, arguing that the conflict is rapidly becoming militarized.....
Without any of the underlying causes of the conflict having been resolved, the two principal claimants, Japan and China, seem to have concluded that the time has come to move beyond political rhetoric and to take action, something hardliners on both sides have been requesting for years. (Although a claimant, Taiwan’s role remains marginal and relatively non-threatening to Japan and China; Taipei has also made it clear, despite claims in Chinese media, that it will not side with China in the dispute. One reason is that military-to-military relations between Taipei and Tokyo, though not publicized, remain stable, and both sides have no interest in seeing that changed.)

Negotiations and half-hearted attempts to set aside political disputes and jointly develop the area, with its large, albeit unproven, oil and natural gas reserves, having stalled, we are now witnessing a rapid militarization of the conflict, which could have serious implications for regional security.

To many observers, the road to the military phase of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute was akin watching a train wreck in the making: everybody knows this will end in disaster, and yet no one does anything to fix the tracks while it is still possible to do so. As the diplomacy phase died tortuously from broken promises, neglect, conflicting legal interpretations, and flare-ups of nationalism on both sides, mistrust and resentment grew. This was accompanied by increments in the military capabilities both sides were willing to dispatch to the area to protect their interests. Consequently, fishing boats navigated by self-made patriots were replaced by coast guard and maritime security vessels and surveillance aircraft, not only adding firepower to the mix, but also bringing the antagonists within greater proximity of each other, thus increasing the likelihood of accident.
As readers know, this blog has been saying for several years now that the Senkakus are a major flashpoint. Recall that not only are Tokyo and Beijing snarling at each other, but the US has a mutual defense treaty with Tokyo and it considers the Senkakus to be Japanese for the purposes of that treaty. It has backed that up by conducting military exercises in the islands. As I've noted many times, this means that the sellout Taiwan crowd can't solve the problem of the US getting dragged into a war in Asia by handing Taiwan over to Beijing Czechoslovakia-style, because in the north the US has a defense treaty with Japan and in the South China Sea dispute, the US is formally obligated to defend Philippines.

Half Moon Shoal

Speaking of the South China Sea mess, the issue took a dark turn this week as well as China gave itself a pie in the face. Fresh off the failure of ASEAN ministers to hammer out a deal to handle China's belligerence, the Chinese navy was forced to admit that one of its ships had run aground on Half-Moon Shoal.....
Given the disputes in the area and China's positions on those disputes, the presence of a naval vessel may itself be provocative. The Sydney Morning Herald reports: “The stranded People's Liberation Army Navy boat, believed to be No 560, a Jianghu class frigate, has in the past been involved in aggressively discouraging Filipino fishing boats from the area.”

China’s Embassy in the Philippines issued a statement on its website:

“Some local media friends asked the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines to confirm the news of a grounded Chinese Navy vessel at Half Moon Shoal in Nansha Islands. According to the information we got from the Information Department of the Ministry of National Defense of China, around 7pm of July 11, a frigate of Chinese Navy ran aground accidentally at Half Moon Shoal of Nansha Isands during a routine patrol mission, with no personnel injured. Currently the rescue work by the Chinese Navy is underway.”

Half Moon Shoal, known in the Philippines as Hasahasa Shoal, is located just 65 nautical miles west from the island-municipality of Balabac in Palawan.

As The Diplomat and its contributors have reported, China’s claims in the area have been pursued through specifically non-military vessels. Trefor Moss notes in a recent piece that “Beijing has an intermediate option – an increasingly impressive array of not-so-hard power tools in the form of the country’s numerous civilian or paramilitary maritime law enforcement agencies.”
News reports had five Chinese ships working to free the stuck frigate. The incident was deeply embarrassing to China but more importantly shows how China regards its agreements with the nations around it. After the incident earlier this year with the two month long standoff at Scarborough Shoal, Beijing agreed in principle to a withdrawal of its ships though it did not commit to a date. The reality is that nothing has changed and Beijing's expansionist policies continue unchecked. Can Beijing be trusted to carry out its agreements in good faith? Hahaha. Why am I still asking questions like that?

So what will ASEAN's other member states do when they hammer out some kind of agreement with China about how the dispute will be handled and China ignores it immediately?

People like to argue that the various protagonists in the story of Chinese expansion in the 20th and 21st centuries do not want war and thus will avoid it. I'd like to point out that avoiding war in East Asia as a consequence of Chinese expansion means multiple outbreaks of sanity: war is avoided over the Senkakus, the South China Sea claims (involving multiple countries) and Taiwan, among others. The odds of multiple successes are....?

After learning last week that the ROC still stands strong on its hopeless claim to the Senkaku Islands, President Ma offered one of those silly moments that the Senkaku mess seems to bring out in the ROCers who advocate it -- like that fellow from Taiwan a couple of weeks ago who waved a PRC flag in the islands.  In this case President Ma listened benevolently as the crew of the Free China, possibly the oldest Chinese junk still in existence, claimed they actually stopped in the Senkakus on their way across the Pacific 57 years ago....
The century-old junk “Free China” (自由中國號), became 57 years ago the first traditional Chinese wooden sailing vessel in Chinese history to cross the Pacific Ocean, powered only by wind and muscle, a Taiwan-US success story. Yesterday six members of the crew of “Free China” talked with President Ma Ying-jeou and recounted that they had landed on the Diaoyutai Islands.


President Ma pointed out that the Ching Dynasty navy stationed on Taiwan had once sailed to the Diaoyutai Islands, recording that there was a mountain they named Diaoyutai, and that the island could berth a dozen or so boats. President Ma went on to say that the annals of the Kavalan prefecture also carried the same record. President Ma stated that when the Ming and Ching Dynasties sent special emissaries to confer the royal title on Okinawa kings about thirty or forty times, they had all sailed from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, passing by the Diaoyutai Islands to Okinawa because this course was the shortest distance with fair winds and sea currents, so “Free China” also sailed by the Diaoyutai Islands.
The last time Ma gave that talk, he pointed out that Okinawa also belonged to China based on this same information. Clearly, since the junk put in at the Senkakus on its way across the Pacific, it must mean that the Senkakus have belonged to China for every picosecond of the last 5,000 years.

The junk story itself is actually quite intriguing. One site observes:
The Free China is an authentic cargo vessel built in Fujian Province, China at around the turn of the century. It’s colorful past included ferrying salted fish and smuggling contraband. It has survived to be perhaps the oldest Chinese wooden sailing vessel in existence, and a living historical treasure.

 As originally constructed, the 80-foot Free China was representative of Chinese working vessels, and characterized by a flat bottom, decorative oval stern and square bow, turret-built hull design, two masts and long sheer lines with prominent wales. The Free China resembles a smaller version of the Fujian-style coastal merchant, the pole junk. The junk featured ten interior watertight bulkheads and compartments. In its original condition, the Free China did not include an engine, shroud or stays, or modern rudder.

Few drawings and photographs exist of technical details of Chinese ship construction. For many observers, junks are among the most mysterious vessels to have sailed the open seas, according to maritime historian and archeologist Hans Van Tilburg. The Free China is a “historic survivor” worth studying as a specific technical example of a historical ship type and cultural artifact, as well as the historical circumstances of its transpacific voyage.
Another notes:
Constructed in Mawei, Fujian province, China in 1890, Free China is the only existing wooden Chinese junk that has ever successfully completed a trans-Pacific voyage under its own sail-power. Originally named Keelung after Keelung Harbor, located in the northern tip of Taiwan, it was renamed Free China in order to participate in the international yacht race on June 11, 1955. Measuring around 82-feet in length, Free China is over a century old and is the only recorded Chinese wooden junk to have sailed across the Pacific Ocean.


In 1955, hostilities between the Communist and the Nationalist governments were still raging across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese citizens could not easily apply for a passport to go abroad, but Taiwan’s government gave permission for the five young men, none of whom knew how to sail, to leave the country and cross the Pacific on the Free China. The United Evening News reported that Lung Yingtai, minister of the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA), pointed out that the departure of the Free China was permitted as a special case by the government of Chiang Kai-shek to create a sense of “breaking through the isolation in pursuit of freedom” in the international community.
Cool, eh? Unfortunately the claim in the KMT paper that the Free China is the only junk to have ever crossed the Pacific is garbled and incorrect; the claim in the bottom link is correct -- it is the only existing junk to have crossed the Pacific. There are numerous previous instances of junks transiting the Pacific. For example, according to Needham (Sci and Civ, Vol IV, page 485), a junk arrived in the UK in 1848 after successfully crossing both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
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Anonymous said...

I wish I could share your enthusiasm for the Cole piece, but I can't. There's nothing really wrong with it, it's just that there doesn't seem to be much there there. He (seems to be) neutral, and I'll say upfront I don't have any problem with that.

He notes that this might wind up in a war; well, we all knew that since the fall of 2010. He notes the increasing militarization of the issue, but only specifies the Chinese side of that equation. (The Japanese side does exist, but not on that scale. That made me wonder if he did slip his finger on the scale to weight sentiment against China.)

He speaks of "flareups of nationalism on both sides", but that makes me wonder if the Taiwan-based Cole is relying on English language media sources for his information on Japanese behavior, which is notoriously unreliable. Even with the Ishihara/Noda offers to buy the islands, I could make a case (not here) that the flareup in Japan is minimal. (Even the hawkish element of the Japanese press is nowhere near the Chinese level. Or South Korean level, for that matter.)

The information on the Fujian base was new to me, but that base is probably closer to Taiwan than the Senkakus. The former is presumably more of a Chinese concern.

If I were to object to anything, it might be this:

"(I)t is important to understand that the current tensions are the logical outcome of years of failure by all sides to address the underlying causes of the conflict."

Does he really know what the Japanese and Chinese are saying to each other? I'm not so sure.

I'm also not so sure this means much. Both sides already know better than anyone else the underlying causes of the conflict.

I also wonder if he's aware of the growing semi-official Chinese talk about Okinawa being a Chinese vassal state, and how the return to that state of affairs should be desirable.

Finally, I would be very interested to know of any Japanese "broken promises" in regard to the Senkakus. I don't, but I can be convinced. I do, however, know of the Japanese reporting on the Chinese taking natural gas resources from the Japanese side.

Michael Turton said...

It's the problem of journalistic balance; it prevents reporting of the true state of affairs. Fortunately, the world has us bloggers, and with the way things are reported in the media, we're never going to out of business.

Good comment.


CLB said...

Did you see this about Taiwan trying to reciprocate China's missiles?