The violent response in Vietnam to Chinese and Taiwanese businesses after China began drilling for oil in disputed maritime areas is just the latest in a long line of skirmishes and rising tensions in East and Southeast Asia. Where these concern the bilateral territorial disagreements between China and Japan, there is particular cause for concern that nationalism and geopolitical advantage could spill over into a serious confrontation.
Although the coverage of the tense situation in preeminent international newspapers is good, it has yet to become a leading issue in the political consciousness of the West. Whilst the ongoing conflict in Syria and Russia’s involvement in Crimea have taken centre stage, being marginalised are the seeds of a conflict that would have repercussions all over the world.
Given how globally-connected the Chinese and Japanese economies are, the reverberations would be ubiquitous. Conflicts between superpowers and the subsequent economic challenges carry smaller nations with them.
The scale of the jurisdictional grievances in the region is significant. In the South China Sea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have mutually-incompatible claims. In the East China Sea, where the battleground may be fiercest, China and Taiwan dispute Japanese control over the Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai/Senkaku, a group of uninhabited islands with resource-rich waters of great geopolitical importance.
In the case of China and Japan, as key trading partners, they would each stand to suffer significant economic woe in the event of war. But whereas actions based on economic projects can be rationalised, this is not the case for nationalist causes such as jurisdictional disputes. It may only take one split-second decision from a low-ranking officer to shoot down an enemy plane or sink ship moving outside its allotted waters, to spark a major global incident.
And there has been plenty of provocation. Responding to Japan buying the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands off the Japanese private investors who owned it, and coinciding with the 2012 anniversary of the Manchurian invasion, Japanese businesses and embassy buildings in China were attacked by local mobs.
On the other side, in December 2013 right-wing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe caused more than a stir in China when he visited a Japanese shrine honouring Japanese casualties from the Second World War which include the graves of war criminals.
For the United States, Obama’s recent visit to Japan reaffirmed its support for Japan’s claims and the US’s role as a guarantor of Japanese sovereignty. Assisting Japan in order to nullify the rise of China is a key US foreign policy objective.
Japan itself is also attempting to reform its current, anti-war constitution. At present, Japan can only constitutionally engage in bellicose activity in order to defend itself. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would like that limit amended to include defence of its allies, perhaps most notably, the United States. To this effect, The Financial Times reported that Japanese liberals fear that should the Constitution be successfully renovated, the country will be drawn into deploying troops in future conflicts overseas.
Given the importance of China and Japan to the world economy and international security, events in the region should be monitored closely. But if the international press should be highlighting the potential severity of the situation, it is imperative that the domestic press in the countries involved exercise a degree of responsibility and not feed or augment nationalist sentiments.