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Revealed: The secret of the East China Sea

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and TomDispatch, and a frequent contributor to websites and radio shows ranging from the US to East Asia.

Published time: December 06, 2013 14:06
Japan Coast Guard vessel PS206 Houou sails in front of Uotsuri island, one of the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea (Reuters / Ruairidh Villar)

What game is China really playing by declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea?

The spin in the US is relentless. This was no less than “saber-rattling,” a “bellicose” posture and a unilateral “provocation.” A possibly tense meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice-President Joe Biden in Beijing may have done nothing to dispel it.

This is what the White House says Xi and Biden talked about; Beijing has not released a transcript. on the hysteria front, this Op-Ed - reflecting a warped consensus in the City of London - even managed to crank it up to pre-World War II levels.

Now compare it with the official Chinese media view, from a more conciliatory take to a no-holds barred assertion of sovereignty: Which brings us to the strong possibility that the original provocation was actually Japanese, not Chinese.

How to tear down that wall

The whole drama is not only about a few islets and rocks that China calls Diaoyu and Japan Senkaku, but about the crucial access to the precious waters that surround them, harboring an unexplored wealth of oil and natural gas. To top it all, it concerns no less than the future of China as a maritime power, rivaling the US.

Let’s start with the facts on the sea. Meiji-era documents prove without a doubt that the Japanese government not only admitted these islands were Chinese (since at least the 16th century) but was also plotting to grab them; that’s exactly what happened in 1895, during the first Sino-Japanese war, a historical juncture when China was extremely vulnerable.

After the Japanese occupation of China and World War II, Washington was in control of the territory. A document signed by the Japanese promised the return of the islands to China after the war. It was never fulfilled. In 1972 the US handed over their “administration” to Japan – but without pronouncing itself about who owned them. A gentlemen's agreement between Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was also in effect. Later, it was also ignored.

Tokyo ended up buying the islands from a private landowner, the Kurihara family. And then Japan nationalized them in September 2012, only a day after a summit between then-Chinese President Hu Jintao and PM Yoshihiko Noda, and this after Hu had told Noda not to change the status quo.

This aerial shot shows the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea. (AFP Photo / JIJI Press Japan out)

Recently, to make matters worse, the Obama administration issued yet one more of its absurd “red lines,” affirming it would support Japan in the event of a war revolving around the islands.

Geo-strategically, it’s even more complex. Virtually all of China’s sea trade flows through choke points whose borders are either controlled by close US allies or nations that are not exactly allied with China.

Imagine yourself as a Chinese naval strategist. You look at the seascapes around you and all you see is what strategists call the First Island Chain. That virtual arc goes from Japan and the Ryukyu Islands and the Korean peninsula, in the north, to Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia and Australia in the south. It’s your ultimate nightmare. In any serious confrontation along this arc, the US Navy will be able to move its aircraft carriers around and seriously compromise China’s access to its oil transported via the straits of Malacca.

Territorial disputes are the norm in the East and South China Seas.

In the East China Sea the focus is on the Diaoyu/Senkaku. In the South China Sea it’s the Spratly islands (China opposed to Taiwan, Philippines and Vietnam) and the Paracel islands (China opposed to Vietnam). Not to mention other disputes now in the backburner with Malaysia and Brunei.

So from the point of view of our Chinese naval strategist, what is deployed is a sort of Reverse Great Wall, an expression, by the way, much popular in circles such as the US Naval War College. It’s like an invisible sea wall from Japan to Australia that can in theory block China’s access to the Pacific.

And if – and that’s a major, long-term if – there ever would be a US blockade, with its sea trade lanes closed, the Chinese economy would be in tremendous trouble.

They know it in Beijing, and they are willing to do anything to prevent it.

In search of good PR

What Biden, not to mention US corporate media, is not telling world public opinion is how, for Washington, this has a lot to do with Okinawa – the ultimate hub from which the US is capable of projecting power west of Japan. It’s as if Okinawa was the US’s Hadrian’s Wall.

In reverse, Okinawa is also essential for Japan to remain indispensable to the US. It’s as if Tokyo was employing the Pentagon as mercenaries – as much as the Pentagon uses mercenaries in its global shadow wars. Talk about a low cost/high return business model. Japan thus keeps its defense spending at 1 percent of GDP, while for most countries this may be at 3 percent or more.

Were Beijing to actually enforce for good its aerial jurisdiction around the Diayou islands, that would be the beginning of the breach of this aquatic Hadrian’s Wall.

Beijing may be right on principle, and is certainly worried by the facts on the sea. What happened was essentially a PR disaster – an inability to convincingly “sell” the air zone to world public opinion. Absolutely nothing will convince any Chinese administration that this is not about Japan encroaching upon a territory and sphere of sovereignty that have been Chinese for centuries.

Instead of the usual pilgrimages to revere “heroes” buried in shrines and accused of committing massacres, Tokyo could easily defuse the problem by admitting to its appalling imperial adventures in Asia – which have led to at least 14 million Chinese dead. And Tokyo could also redefine its role in Asia by behaving like an Asian power – and not some advanced Western platform, as it’s perceived by millions across the continent, and not only Chinese.

Ultimately, the only way to defuse the Diaoyu/Senkaku/air zone problem would be for Beijing and Tokyo to sit at the table and work out a joint administration/security treaty for these East China Sea lanes – ideally arbitrated by the UN. The problem is Tokyo simply does not admit there is a problem. Now Beijing’s strategy – why not hire an American PR agency, like everyone does? – is to force the Japanese to finally admit it.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Comments (4)

 

Brad 14.12.2013 01:52

Thank you for covering important facts that are purposely trivialised or ignored in the propaganda media. The oceanic East Asian countries have had unsolved disputes with each other. For example Japan has disputes of island ownership with Taiwan, South Korea, and Russia. But the most important fact many overlooked in regards China's ADIZ is that Japan unilaterally expanded their ADIZ first in 2011 which flared the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. Japan's ADIZ is enormous disguised as a growing territorial claim and itself exposing hypocrisy and use of double standards here. Look at Japan's ADIZ on a map to see for yourself.

 

Sir Percy 10.12.2013 01:17

Excellent and truful report of the history regarding who actually owns the islands by Pepe. Keep up the good work.

 

Harry Hayward 09.12.2013 09:30

richard lockwood 06.12.2013 15:42

As usual with Mr Escobar, some facts and a lot of spin. All nations search for and try to acquire territory. Was there some magical point in the past where this became evil and the previous borders declared moral and just? Russia has behaved just as badly with islands it took from Japan, any mention? China is smart and forward thinking to expand its declared boundaries, Japan and US are evil when they do it? Grow up Mr Escobar.

  

Well summed up sir.

View all comments (4)
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