Tensions rise in East Asia as China flexes its muscles

Opinion: Arguments over territorial claims could trigger military face-offs

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, left, greets Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s, prime minister, during a swearing in ceremony for the prime minister this week.  Photograph: Udit Kulshrestha/ Bloomberg

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, left, greets Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s, prime minister, during a swearing in ceremony for the prime minister this week. Photograph: Udit Kulshrestha/ Bloomberg


“India’s Shinzo Abe?” The headline in an Indian paper about the election of Narendra Modi makes an interesting connection and speaks volumes about the changing face of eastern Asia’s big players and the region’s disturbing, militarising dynamic. East Asia is becoming a more dangerously volatile place as China flexes its muscles, reviving a series of bitter territorial disputes, testing perceptions of weaker US commitments to allies and the mettle of new, increasingly nationalist leaders.

As a great power Cold War-like standoff in the region evolves into a series of multilateral confrontations by increasingly heavily armed states, a lethal cocktail is emerging that more than one commentator has compared to Europe’s pre-first World War landscape. Arguments, it is feared, over peripheral territorial claims have the potential to trigger superpower mutual assistance obligations and escalating military face-offs.

And nationalism is on the march. Abe and Modi, both cut from a similar explicitly nationalist moulds, are determined, as they see it, to restore the proper international standing of their respective nations which they believe punch below their proper weight on the world stage. Both see an Indo-Japanese strategic alliance as a crucial priority.

China’s leader, President Xi Jinping also wants to restore the Middle Kingdom to past pre-eminence and is seeking what he calls a “new model of great power relations” – for which read Chinese pre-eminence. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea is very much playing into a similar aggressive nationalist Great Russia agenda.

Such ambitions are reflected in a series of small but significant maritime confrontations – a dispute between Hanoi and Beijing over a group of islands 150 miles from Vietnam which has led to violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam (and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat this week). China has picked simultaneous fights with the Philippines, whether by building artificial islands or seeking to control fishing grounds, and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu by Beijing. The latter has flooded the disputed areas in the East China Sea with aircraft and boats, openly and illegally challenging Japan’s administrative control of the islands.

Bit by bit, Beijing is creating new facts on the ground, and we are seeing a rapid build-up of military forces across the region. China and Russia have been planning double-digit increases in their defence budgets. The Indian military too.

This is also the context for Abe’s recent proposed “reinterpretation” of Japan’s 1947 “peace” constitution to allow the country’s Self-Defence Forces to transform themselves into an army with offensive capabilities, although ostensibly to better equip it for regional collective self-defence. “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” the constitiution proclaims, largely at the insistence of the US post-war regime.

A new interpretation, Abe argues, would allow Japanese peacekeepers to offer more robust assistance in UN missions and Japanese ships and planes to help bolster the defence of countries like Vietnam and the Philippines which, like Japan, are alarmed by China’s growing assertiveness.

But Abe’s shift is cast in a different, more ominous light by neighbours such as China and Korea because of his association with the nationalist right in Japan and particularly its willingness to gloss over Japan’s brutal second World War role. Domestically the move is also not popular in a country that has a strong pacifist tradition – a Kyodo News poll taken right after the announcement on May 15th found 48 per cent opposed to the lifting of the ban on collective self-defence to 39 per cent in favour.

The legislative procedures will take some time, but Abe’s move will further add to the militarisation of a region which is arguably dangerously overarmed.

In India, Modi’s long association with the sectarian radical Hindu nationalism of his Bharatiya Janata Party with and its even more extremist ideological driving force, the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has raised well-founded fears in the country’s 150-million-strong Muslim community. Crucially, how will he manage the relationship with nuclear-armed and Islamist-dominated neighbour Pakistan?

There have also been long-running border disputes with China that have sparked war and there is a potential major confrontation between India and China over water, as China controls the flows from the Tibetan plateau, sources of which are vital to India and surrounding countries.

The breakthrough invitation by Modi to Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif to his inaugural bodes well, but the gap between the two countries is as wide as ever and just as capable of tipping them into war.

Then add to the volatile regional cocktail of nationalisms the ever-present, heavily armed, economically bankrupt and highly unpredicatable North Korea, and you have an combustible mix that should make us all sit up and pay close attention.


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