Although Americans wish to focus on the anemic economy and upcoming election, the wider world may intervene. Competing claims over sovereignty in the waters around China — the East China Sea and the South China Sea — threaten to transform from rhetoric into military conflict.
Territorial issues have became embroiled in partisan politics within many countries in the region, as leaders seek to bolster their domestic positions by taking a tough stand on issues related to national pride. Governments have engaged in provocative acts, such as sending warships into disputed waters, and have encouraged their citizens to escalate the conflict through protests.
Given the economic importance of the region and the United States' security commitments to any countries around China, Americans should be worried.
It was not always like this. For much of the post-World War II era, countries of the region made claims to parts of the East and South China seas, but they lacked the military capability or interest in pressing claims aggressively. Ten years ago, China and its neighbors took a cooperative approach. The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by Southeast Asian nations and China in 2002, called for mutual consultation and confidence-building measures by all parties to the dispute. Japan, Taiwan, and China, which contested small islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese), did not let competing claims hamper trade or diplomacy.
What has changed? China has become more powerful and assertive, and every country in the region needs the oil that may exist under those contested seas.
China's growing economic and military power has bolstered its national pride and confidence. Beijing has increased its military budget by over 10 percent per year for well over a decade now, and many Chinese are eager to see their country treated as a great power. This attitude is clear in strident territorial claims in the waters around China. Nations stretching from Japan to Vietnam responded by reiterating that many of the tiny islands in the region (and the waters around them) belong to them. Many nations are increasing their own defense spending and enhancing military cooperation with the United States.
The possibility of oil under these seas only intensifies competition. China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, the nations most involved in the East and South China seas claims, rely on imported oil. Since 2009, China has been the world's second largest market for imported oil (after the United States), followed closely by Japan. South Korea and Taiwan are also among the top 10 oil importing nations.
Over the past few months, China has upped the ante in the South China Sea. First, a series of Chinese vessels moved among islands claimed by the Philippines. Tensions grew when a Chinese frigate ran aground only 90 miles west of Palawan, the western-most island in the Philippines. Second, in late July Beijing announced that it will increase its military presence on small islands claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Leaders of both countries fear domestic criticism if they do not take a strong stance on this issue, but they lack the military and economic clout to block China. Both countries seek to upgrade their military ties to the United States as a hedge against Beijing.
Most recently, Sino-Japanese conflict over the Senkakus, currently under the jurisdiction of Tokyo, heated up as Japanese and Chinese activists sought to bring attention to their nation's claims. Supporters of China traveled to the islands and were arrested by Japanese authorities. Tokyo opted to quickly return the protesters, but that has done little to reduce tensions, as rallies in China included attacks on Japanese businesses. Some politicians in both countries sought to score points by talking tough. Perceptions that the Japanese have not acknowledged their aggression and atrocities during World War II only increase hostility toward Tokyo.
Given the heated nationalist passions that come with territorial claims, Americans should not delude themselves into thinking they can easily solve these problems. China is the key. Ideally, the Chinese government would tone down its statements and stop expanding its presence in the region. Beijing would build good-will by offering a freeze on efforts to build military outposts on disputed islands. That is not likely to occur.
The Obama administration has advocated multilateral negotiations even as it promises to build-up military might in the region to deter China. In an era of budget problems, however, increasing the American military commitment may not be practical. The United States must ensure that nations around China do not become "free riders" who expect Washington to bear the primary cost of protecting their interests. Instead, the United States should foster cooperation among the states around China and promote their economic prosperity. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement now under negotiation, could be one way to achieve these goals. Washington should also encourage multi-national efforts in oil exploration to create economic incentives for cooperation. Prosperous allies in East and Southeast Asia can deter China with a reasonable and affordable American commitment.
Steve Phillips is a professor of history at Towson University. His email is email@example.com.