The center of Asia’s divide

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — Japan may have created the impression of having buckled under China’s pressure by releasing the Chinese fishing trawler captain. But the Japanese action helps move the spotlight back to China, whose rapid accumulation of power has emboldened it to aggressively assert territorial and maritime claims against its neighbors, from Japan to India.

Having earlier preached the gospel of its “peaceful rise,” China is no longer shy about showcasing its military capabilities and asserting itself on multiple fronts. While the Chinese leadership may gloat after forcing Tokyo to climb down and release the captain, the episode — far from shifting the Asian balance of power in Beijing’s favor — has only shown that China is at the center of Asia’s political divides.

China’s new stridency in its territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors has helped highlight Asia’s central challenge to come to terms with existing boundaries by getting rid of the baggage of history that weighs down a number of interstate relationships. Even as Asia is becoming more interdependent economically, it is becoming more divided politically.

While the bloody wars in the first half of the 20th century have made war unthinkable today in Europe, wars in Asia during the second half of the 20th century did not resolve matters and have only accentuated bitter rivalries. A number of interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950, the year both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started. Those wars, far from settling or ending disputes, have only kept disputes lingering.

China, significantly, has been involved in the largest number of military conflicts. A recent Pentagon report has cited examples of how China carried out military preemption in 1950, 1962, 1969 and 1979 in the name of strategic defense. The report states: “The history of modern Chinese warfare provides numerous case studies in which China’s leaders have claimed military preemption as a strategically defensive act.

For example, China refers to its intervention in the Korean War (1950-1953) as the “War to Resist the United States and Aid Korea.” Similarly, authoritative texts refer to border conflicts against India (1962), the Soviet Union (1969) and Vietnam (1979) as “self-defense counterattacks.” The seizure of Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 by Chinese forces was another example of offense as defense.

All these cases of preemption occurred when China was weak, poor and internally torn. So today, China’s growing power naturally raises legitimate concerns. A stronger, more prosperous China is already beginning to pursue a more muscular foreign policy vis-a-vis its neighbors, as underscored by several developments this year alone — from its inclusion of the South China Sea in its “core” national interests, an action that makes its claims to the disputed Spratly Islands nonnegotiable, to its reference to the Yellow Sea as a sort of exclusive Chinese military-operations zone where the U.S. and South Korea should discontinue holding joint naval exercises.

China also has become more insistent in pressing its territorial claims to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, with Chinese warships making more frequent forays into Japanese waters.

As if to signal that it is acquiring the military power to enforce its claims, China has since April conducted large-scale naval exercises, first near Japan’s Ryukyu Islands chain — with a Chinese helicopter buzzing a Japanese destroyer — then in the East China Sea and, most recently, in the Yellow Sea.

In Tibet, the official PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Daily has reported several new significant military developments in recent months, including the first-ever major parachute exercise to demonstrate a capability to rapidly insert troops on the world’s highest plateau and an exercise involving “third generation” fighter-jets carrying live ammunition.

In addition, the railroad to Tibet, the world’s highest elevated railway, has now started being used to supply “combat readiness materials for the air force” there. These military developments have to be seen in the context of China’s resurrection since 2006 of its long-dormant claim to India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh state and its recent attempts to question Indian sovereignty over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which it occupies.

Against that background, China’s increasingly assertive territorial and maritime claims threaten Asian peace and stability. In fact, the largest real estate China covets is not in the South or East China Seas but in India: Arunachal Pradesh is almost three times larger than Taiwan. Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Europe has built its peace on that principle, with a number of European states learning to live with boundaries they do not like.

Efforts to redraw territorial and maritime frontiers are an invitation to endemic conflicts in Asia. Through its overt refusal to accept the territorial status quo, Beijing only highlights the futility of political negotiations.

After all, a major redrawing of frontiers has never happened at the negotiating table in world history. Such redrawing can only be achieved on the battlefield, as Beijing has done in the past.

Today, whether it is Arunachal Pradesh or Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands, or even the Spratlys, China is dangling the threat to use force to assert its claims. In doing so, China has helped reinforce the specter of a China threat. By picking territorial fights with its neighbors, China also is threatening Asia’s continued economic renaissance. More significantly, China is showing that it is not a credible candidate to lead Asia.

It is important for other Asian states and the rest of the international community to convey a clear message to Beijing: After six long decades, China’s redrawing of frontiers must now come to an end.

Brahma Chellaney is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins, 2010).