East China Sea — “Fearsome Situation”

International attention has been trained on Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine the last several months — where conflicts rage over land. One expert suggests people should be paying more attention to a conflict over water.

While there are currently disputes in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea, Mark Valencia of the Nautilus Institute says the situation in the East China Sea is the most dangerous.

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Sunset in the East China Sea. Image by yul.kubo. (Flickr Creative Commons.)

“The East China Sea is the more fearsome of the two situations that may produce violent conflict in our time,” Valencia says. Violent conflict, he notes, that has the potential to involve a number of global powers including China, Japan, and the United States.

Valencia made his remarks in a talk titled “The East China Sea Dispute: History, Status, and Ways Forward.”

At issue is economic development in the East China Sea. The dispute also concerns ownership of the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands. Virtually uninhabitable, it’s not the land that’s caused the dispute — it’s the mineral and petroleum resources in the region. The area, Valencia says, “has good oil and gas potential.”

Japan claims ownership of the Senkakus, but China claims the area as well.

“China’s claim in the East China Sea is based on its ownership of Taiwan,” Valencia says. Without Taiwan, China’s claim is “much more spurious.”

In 2010 the dispute boiled over as a Chinese fishing boat crossed into Japan’s territorial waters. Japanese authorities arrested the fisherman and held him in custody for an extended period of time. In China, Japanese nationals were arrested for activities near Chinese military bases.

As tensions mounted, the United States announced its understanding that the Senkakus were Japanese territory.

While the 2010 flare up was managed, tensions have only continued to grow. Valencia says Chinese and Japanese military vessels frequently patrol the region at the same time quite close to one another.

“Relations between the countries are probably at their worst levels since Japanese recognition of China in 1975,” Valencia says.

Nationalism is on the rise in both China and Japan and ownership of the islands is increasingly tied to understandings of national identity. This is situated within a long history of antagonism and mistrust between the two countries.

As China and Japan, as well as Taiwan and South Korea, fight over issues such as where China’s continental shelf ends and who can patrol what waters, Valencia says there is a way forward.

“There is room for negotiation,” he says and notes that Japan and China had reached an uneasy compromise prior to the 2010 flare up. But to move forward the parties involved have to be willing to compromise.

“The situation is getting more dangerous every day,” Valencia says. There are initiatives to try to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict — Taiwan has launched the “East China Sea Peace Initiative” to try to resolve the situation.

But Valencia says the world may have to wait for both China and Japan to elect leaders less bound to nationalism.

Valencia’s talk on the East China Sea was part of a day of workshops held on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus examining China’s global relations. It was sponsored by the Center on American and Global Security and the East Asian Studies Center. The ANU-IU Pan Asia Institute co-hosted the talk.

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