by Robert Callobridge
In November, China raised the stakes and the pressure in one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, supplementing its already hostile approach to a separate region in a move that could define its relationship with the United States – and the world – for the next fifty years.
More Than Just Saber-Rattling
On November 23, the world’s second-largest economy declared a special air defense identification zone (ADIZ) around contested islands in the East China Sea. These small, uninhabited islands, called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan, are the seat of hotly-contested territorial claims by the two countries, who have spent years jockeying and saber-rattling in the international community.
The zone requires that all aircraft flying in it – military and commercial – inform the Chinese government beforehand of their flight patterns and be subject to Chinese rules in the zone. The country has not shied from implied military enforcement of the zone to non-cooperating flights. In the immediate aftermath of the declaration of the ADIZ, the international community fretted over whether the Chinese intimation of military defense of its claims would actually be enforced.
While some called it saber-rattling and posturing, the country’s past actions speak to a slightly different intent. Elsewhere, China has gone above such intimation: since 1970 the country has participated in 17 military engagements to protect similar claims of sovereignty regarding other hotly-contested islands, according to figures reported in 2011 by the US Energy Information Administration.
The concern was enough that the United States advised its commercial airlines to comply with the Chinese to protect passenger safety, even while maintaining the special directive was an illegitimate exercise of international power. The US would not, according to reports from the Pentagon, identify its military presence in the region. Japan shed no ground: the government ordered across-the-board non-compliance with the Chinese demands and upped its mounted additional pressure on the international community to force China to settle.
Under the Sea
The islands, much like their brethren the Paracels and Spratlys in the South China Sea, are barren, devoid of resources, and uninhabitable. What inspires these two economic powers to clash is a bit deeper – about five thousand feet deeper, in fact. It’s hydrocarbons, including oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels that these energy-dependent nations need in order to fuel economic growth and develop independent energy supplies.
As the countries comprising the Asian-Pacific region vie for global influence, their economic clout will be central to their ability to effect change and influence policy on the world stage. In determining that clout, economic growth will play more prominent role – a role defined, in large part, by their ability to acquire the energy to power it. Energy both countries believe could be fueled by “one of the most prolific oil and gas reservoirs of the world, possibly comparing favourably with the Persian Gulf,” as suggested by a 1969 United Nations report.
In the post-Fukushima Japan, where less than 15% of the country’s energy is produced using domestic sources, the retention of control over such vast hydrocarbon reserves is tied to the country’s ability to fuel its economy. In 2008, the country attempted to hedge its risk by signing a bilateral cooperation agreement with China that would have both countries jointly explore four natural gas fields and jointly invest in the creation of two new fields in the East China Sea. In the intervening years afterward, however, both continued to pursue unilateral actions that raised tensions and held up any hydrocarbon drilling development until the disputes and tension had been addressed. When Fukushima-Daichi’s meltdown took the entirety of Japan’s nuclear power offline, the country attempted to leverage its position in the East China Sea to hydrocarbons for the nuclear energy it had lost.
Recently uncovered secret classified documents from the Chinese government indicate that under Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2010, the Chinese government had sent cables to Japan secretly classifying the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands as an ADIZ.
Sea-borne Lines of Communication
Both sets of islands represent an opportunity for China to exercise direct influence over not only strategic oil fields but also some of the most important sea lanes for oil transportation in the world. The closing of just two of the straits in the South China Sea would cut off over half of the world’s sea trade and up to a sixth of the world’s sea-traded oil. Not only would crude oil be disrupted, but some of the world’s largest refineries in the region would also be left stranded, including the largest Royal Dutch Shell refinery in the world.
Many of the sea-borne lines of communication (SLOCs) that pass through the South China Sea carry the goods and resources that have fueled the rapid rise in economic prominence of Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Japan. These SLOCs combine with other sea lanes in the East China Sea to complete one of the most complex sea intersections in the world – the control of which would represent significant global prominence and an unparalleled clout in the Asia-Pacific region.
Any military engagements in either the South or East China Sea would represent a significant disruption in the global supply chain, which has attracted the attention of previously complacent global players – including the United States. President Obama, in his pivot to Asia, made several clear comments about Chinese aspirations in the region and upped the pressure for the country to ease its military pressures while a diplomatic solution is hammered out. And unlike the South China Sea, where an international free-for-all has been brewing since the 1970s without US intervention, the Senkaku (Diaoyu) represent a unique obstacle to China’s string of pearls vision of hydrocarbon sovereignty: in the event of a military scuffle, the US is obliged to fight in Japan’s defense, pitting the US squarely against China.
In the age of Alexander the Great, King Gordius of Phrygia tied an intricate and impossible-to-untie knot, proclaiming that he who undid it would be the next ruler of Asia. It seems that the Chinese Seas are the Gordian knot of the new China. If the region can find a creative and lasting solution, they can enjoy prosperity throughout Asia. If they pursue – or continue on – the more politically expedient but prosperity-inhibiting path of contumacy regarding the international community, the law, and their obligation to end the political conflict before it escalates again to military engagement, the coalescing global interest in the Chinese seas may not be sufficient to prevent conflict. In the aftermath, the region may not even survive sufficiently to see the proper utilization of the resources that are the cause of conflict in the first place.