Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Vibrant Asian nationalism complicates territory disputes

The waters of the hotly contested South China Sea are edging along a very fine line. Coastguards from Japan, the Philippines, China, and Taiwan are carving mutually exclusive zones of influence.

Also involved is Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and of course by extension, so is the United States. Because of how much control over the world’s oceans Washington has, there are even suggestions for the Americans to mediate the squabbles in the region.

But the last thing this dangerous flashpoint needs is another strong military power wading in to throw its weight around. Pointing more guns to intimidate those countries into compromise will just worsen the situation. Not only are the Asian nations not capable of conducting sustained war, their economies are too interconnected to risk capsizing in petty spats over eroding rocks and cold ocean. Or so goes the argument against US involvement anyway.

There is also a school of thought pointing at American disengagement with the region as a causal factor in today’s fraying. As the strategy of “hard power” fell out of fashion in favour of the seemingly more beneficent “soft power” ideals, some Asian countries are justifiably worried. Instead of being able to rely on US protection, they have had to build their own military protection to guard maritime borders. This changed the balance of power in the Asia Pacific and needs to be rectified by a stronger power. Or so goes the argument for US involvement.

Both arguments have merit. But there is a thread running through these territorial scraps that gets lost in general discussion. The picture of just what is going on in the East and South China Seas comes better into focus when considering the thorny issue of nationalism and the development of Asian states.

Nationalism as an ideology was all but exhausted by western powers in the 20th century. Once the developed world finished immolating after two brutal world wars, thinkers in Europe and America discarded nationalism as a dangerous and malignant idea. But this was only in the western world.

As the 21st century picks up speed parts of the Asia Pacific, lacking the painful history of Europe or America, are toying with the ideology for themselves. As their economies rapidly expand giving them access to powerful modern weapons, the cash to field those weapons, and a politically-aware populace, old territorial grudges are suddenly appearing ameliorable. And many Asian states are reaching out to grab influence over disputed areas before their lesser-developed rivals can respond.

Arbitrary borders over water or windswept islands with little more than seabirds as permanent residents are being claimed with almost European belligerency. Where once few Asian countries had the military power to enact control over fishing spots or energy discoveries, now many can and have purchased the means to do so. Today, the world’s media supply the stage and string, while the Asian states compete in an arena over national pseudo-emblems imbued with capricious, but highly emotional, significance.

The best known case is China, which seems to be the root cause of many squabbles. Every relevant editorial seems to mention the rising territorial aggression of the Chinese navy. Beijing’s warships boldly move all over the South China Sea and beyond. But Japan is the same. Tokyo’s growing navy is now one of the strongest in the world, if not the strongest. And it clashes with other coastguards and navies every other week.

It isn’t discussed too readily, but nationalism is healthy and vivacious in Asia. And for many of its developing nations, it is also a relatively new idea. China’s view that Tibet and Taiwan belong to what Beijing calls “One China” is widespread throughout mainland China. Taiwan and the Philippines are disputing their overlapping territories. Even Japan’s claim on a disputed string of islands is probably not strictly an economic venture.

Not even the Nansei islands, including Okinawa, are immune as a small group in China drums up support for independence of what they call the Ryukyu Islands. Putting Okinawa in the same category as other island disputes sparked a strong Japanese response for the world to reject the Chinese claim to the islands. The movement has little support presently, but Beijing could encourage the idea if it gathers steam.

But just how dangerous is all this posturing? All the vitriolic words written and the long trails of wake probably don’t herald conflict on the horizon. The quarrels have been happening for many years, and they show no sign of abating. Each clash is treated as a breach of national honour for all countries involved and a violation of independence, and yet the fighting never moves beyond bluster.

Given the geographical reality of the region, the tension will likely be a staple of East Asian interactions for the foreseeable future. Negotiation is still favoured by most Asian countries, because there really is too much to lose, however the destiny of the region is mostly in Beijing’s hands. Aside from the United States, China has the military upper hand and how it chooses to pursue its goals will decide the story.

And yet, as the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman earlier this month by the Philippine coastguard proves, the potential for simple miscalculation is very high. Imagine what might happen if tensions are ratcheted up again between Japan and China as high as they were earlier this year. Think of the political or military fallout if a nervous weapons officer hits the red button and sinks an oncoming craft.

The situation is certainly complex and tension in East Asia always high, but the mutable dynamics of the region are adding new variables all the time.

It is easy to overplay the potential for isolated problems to escalate into full-blown conflict, but mixing a colourful palate of nationalism, growing civilian political interest, and expanding military budgets is problematic. Add a dash of uncertainty and human miscalculation and the world’s fastest growing region needs to watch where it treads.

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