Heated rhetoric and an unwillingness to engage is worsening the complex nature of the islands disputes in Asian waters.
This was evident at last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue on defence, where a palpable dip in understanding between the United States and China, and animus between the principal claimants, will bring the issue to no definable conclusion. Prospects of the claims being held in abeyance for the future seem increasingly fanciful. In the event, a Japanese plan to assist Asean in preserving open skies and sea lanes in the midst of these difficulties was sidelined. The offer made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would in the ordinary course of events have been dissected, even if it appeared to be set up in competition with China which has a longer history of cooperation with Southeast Asia.
It is accepted that the US has a role in helping to resolve the disputes. China, however, regards US assertions to being a disinterested broker as compromised by its open support for the positions held by Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has pointedly said the US “will not look the other way” if norms in pushing the claims were violated. President Barack Obama had made a similar though oblique reference days earlier in a foreign policy speech. China’s chief delegate Wang Guanzhong, a ranking general of the People’s Liberation Army, framed Hagel’s remarks as “incitement, threats and intimidation”. Speaking in Beijing, President Xi Jinping said while China would never start trouble over the claims, it would respond if there were provocations.
Tempers are rising on both sides.
This is not helpful, coming on top of cyber espionage charges the US levelled at named Chinese nationals. The two nations should dial down their public posturing. Their relationship is fundamental to preserving world peace and economic stability. The islands issue is only one of a myriad of matters for them to work through; it should never poison their bilateral dealings and obstruct collaboration.
Away from the glare of public events where a certain toughness is to be expected, it is critical they maintain back channels to sort out outstanding differences – including the very public adversarial stance on the South and East China Sea contests. All parties will have to keep up contacts and collaboration on economic and security matters, vital for their common interests.
It would be a shame if hopes for a much-vaunted Asian century end in woe over ancient disputes over distant rocks and islands that most Asians have never set foot on. No doubt, governments have a responsibility to uphold territorial integrity. But they also have a duty to work together to safeguard peace and prosperity for future generations.