NUSA DUA, INDONESIA – For Japan, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea may not be directly in its own backyard, but the interests at stake are inextricably linked with its own and are forcing it to come off the fence.
Nevertheless, while some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations welcome Japan’s involvement, its impact may be minimal given that the maritime issue is evolving into a spat between China — which is elbowing its smaller neighbors over what are believed to be seabed deposits of oil and gas — and the United States, which is coming to their aid.
Doing Japan’s part to help resolve the South China Sea issue, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda proposed at the East Asia Summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali that a forum for maritime cooperation be established so EAS members and experts can freely exchange views, a Foreign Ministry official said.
Though none of the leaders at the summit, which brings together 10-member ASEAN and its dialogue partners such as Japan, China and the United States, opposed the proposal, there was no agreement either, the official said.
Japan followed the cue of its ally the United States in tackling the South China Sea issue in line with such international laws as the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
At a news conference after the EAS and other ASEAN-related meetings, Noda said that this was the prevailing view.
“We were able to confirm the importance of international laws for the oceans, which are a public asset connecting the Asia-Pacific region,” Noda said.
He also said the EAS participants shared the view that “maritime issues will be handled through cooperation and dialogue.”
Akio Takahara, professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Law and Politics, points to the East China Sea as the reason behind Japan’s attempt to get involved in the territorial claims.
The East China Sea has long been a source of tension between Tokyo and Beijing because of the Senkaku Islands.
The row over the sovereignty of the islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, flared up in September 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat rammed Japanese patrol boats. The incident drove bilateral ties to their worst level in years.
Bilateral ties have improved since then, but China’s increasing assertiveness at sea continues to be a source of worry. For example, Chinese survey ships have repeatedly been spotted in the area around the Senkaku Islands, sometimes entering Japan’s exclusive economic zone or sailing outside of areas China notified Japan about in advance.
Tokyo, because of its run-ins with Beijing over the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyu islands in China, feels as if the rows over the South China Sea are a matter of direct concern, Japanese officials and experts say.
“To resolve the South China Sea issue based on international norms will be in Japan’s interest,” said Takahara, an expert on China.
In the wake of skirmishes in the area in recent months, the leaders of the Philippines and Vietnam agreed with Noda in separate talks ahead of the ASEAN meetings in Bali that interests such as freedom of navigation and peaceful settlement of disputes in the area should be advanced and protected.
“If the other claimants unilaterally move to strengthen their claims by exploring for resources within a disputed area, the Chinese feel they must actively oppose it because they are afraid nonaction would be interpreted as tacit Chinese acceptance,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow of the East-West Center, explaining China’s position.
Also, China, which is believed to have called the South China Sea a core interest on a par with Taiwan and Tibet, maintains the position that it will not internationalize disputes and settle them only bilaterally.
This was reinforced during the EAS gathering when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted by Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario as saying that it is not appropriate to discuss the issue at a multilateral forum like the EAS.
Thus, China would “see a Japanese-led anti-China multilateral effort as a setback and react defensively,” said Roy.
To prevent Japan from being a regional power, China, now the world’s second-biggest economy and a key trading partner for ASEAN, has tried to lure ASEAN to its side through its sheer economic might and military power.
Not to be outdone, Japan, relegated to the third-largest economy, has continued to emphasize its ties with ASEAN. In the latest show of support for the regional bloc’s development, Japan pledged during the Japan-ASEAN summit ¥2 trillion worth of infrastructure projects in the region.
Further compounding the issue is the lack of unity on the issue in ASEAN itself, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to call for a “clear and common position” on the territorial disputes in the region, an ASEAN diplomat said.
Except for Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, which claim in whole or in part the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, other ASEAN members apparently do not want to dwell on the disputes and irk Beijing.
ASEAN unity was reflected in their stance in welcoming the recent adoption in July of guidelines to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, which ASEAN signed with China in 2002. They are also working on drafting a Code of Conduct, which will be a legally binding document.
“In the long run, the Chinese believe their growing power and influence will cause the other claimants to give in,” said Roy.
“For the time being it is unthinkable for China to back down, partly because of the domestic situation where China needs to arouse nationalistic sentiments,” the University of Tokyo’s Takahara said.
Meanwhile, overshadowing Japan’s efforts to help mend the rift over the South China Sea is the rivalry between China and the United States, officials and experts say.
“In my opinion the South China Sea is the focus of the strategic competition between China and the U.S.,” Myanmar’s President Thein Sein’s chief political adviser, Ko Ko Hlaing, said in an interview on the sidelines of the EAS.
“We ASEAN members are in the middle of the tug of war between U.S. and China,” Hlaing said.
FTA talks with Australia
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Australian counterpart Julia Gillard agreed Saturday to resume bilateral talks on a free-trade agreement next month, Japanese officials said.
Japan and Australia were originally scheduled to hold such talks in April, but they were postponed in the wake of the catastrophic March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The FTA negotiations first began in 2007.
The two leaders reached the agreement during talks on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits being held on Bali.