East China Sea Tensions Rise: Russia Has a Role as a Mediator
Peter KORZUN | 11.06.2016 | WORLD / Asia Pacific

East China Sea Tensions Rise: Russia Has a Role as a Mediator

The conflict over disputed islands in the Asia Pacific is once more right in the international media spotlight.

Tokyo protested to Beijing after a Chinese frigate entered waters near a disputed island chain in the East China Sea. Japanese Defense Ministry spokesman Yoshitomo Mori said a Japanese Navy destroyer detected the Chinese ship as it entered the contiguous zone – an area stretching 24 nautical miles out from the edge of territorial waters – around the Senkaku, also known as Diaoyu, islands, on June 9.

Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Akitaka Saeki summoned China’s ambassador, Chen Yonghua, to lodge a protest «with serious concern», and demand that the Chinese military ship leave the area immediately.

«We are worried that this action raises tensions to a higher level», Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a regular press briefing in Tokyo. «Related ministries are working together to deal with this and we will work closely with the US», Suga noted.

China’s Defense Ministry responded that its navy had every right to operate in Chinese waters.

The incidents come as Japan, the United States and India launched a major joint naval exercise, dubbed Malabar, from June 10 in the nearby Western Pacific.

While the US has not endorsed Tokyo’s territorial claim to the islands, it has said the Japanese-controlled territory falls under its security treaty with Tokyo that obligates Washington to defend Japan against an attack.

Ties between China and Japan have been strained by a territorial row. The islands have a total area of about 7 sq km and lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan’s southern-most prefecture, Okinawa. They are controlled by Japan. The territory matters because it is located close to important shipping lanes, offers rich fishing grounds and lies near potential oil and gas reserves. The islands are also in a strategically significant position, amid rising competition between the US and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan took control of the islands in 1894-1895 during the first Sino-Japanese War, through the signature of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. It regards the islands as a part of the city of Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture. Following the discovery of potential undersea oil reserves in 1968 in the area and the 1971 transfer of administrative control of the islands from the United States to Japan, China claims that the islands have been a part of Chinese territory since at least 1534. It asserts that the Potsdam Declaration (which Japan accepted as part of the San Francisco Peace Treaty) required that Japan relinquish control of all islands except for the islands of Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, Shikoku. It states that this means control of the Senkaku islands should pass to China. The Japanese government does not accept that there is a dispute, asserting that the islands are an integral part of Japan. Tokyo has rejected claims that the islands were under China’s control prior to 1895, and that these islands were contemplated by the Potsdam Declaration or affected by the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

The dispute had rumbled relatively quietly for decades. But in April 2012, a fresh row ensued after outspoken right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner. The Japanese government then reached a deal to buy three of the islands from the owner in a move to block Mr Ishihara’s more provocative plan. This angered China, triggering public and diplomatic protests. Since then, Chinese government ships have regularly sailed in and out of what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands.

The risk of conflict in the region is significant. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims, particularly over rights to exploit the region’s possibly extensive reserves of oil and gas. Freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific is also a contentious issue, especially between the United States and China over the right of US military vessels to operate in China’s two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In May, a US warship demonstratively sailed within 12 miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, an operation intended to show that the United States opposes China’s efforts to restrict navigation in the strategic waterway.

The solution to the region’s insecurities may come from Moscow. Given the growing importance of Asia-Pacific region to Russia as an Asia-Pacific power, Moscow has a major interest in preventing any one of the various disputes in the South China Sea from escalating militarily. Russia’s clout in the region is growing fast.

Russia is part of the East Asia Summit, the forum where maritime security is discussed. It could play a role as a member of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus forum, including China and the US.

As tensions rise between China and the United States and clashes occur between China and the littoral states over disputed islands, the countries of the region have begun to see the worth of Russian participation. This is happening even as the Americans are seen as befuddled in the region despite their so-called Asia Pivot. Elizabeth Wishnick of Columbia University writes in her policy memo titled «Russia: New Player in the South China Sea?» that «Although Russia finds support in China for its global positions, on a regional level Russian leaders have sought to enhance their country’s independence of action through an increasingly varied Southeast Asian diplomacy, including traditional allies like Vietnam, but also unexpected partners such as the Philippines».

«It is a strategy that would require Russia not to take sides on who owns what, but would allow it to support actions that are based on the principles of international law and that reduce tensions», says Carlos D Sorreta, Director of the Philippine Foreign Service Institute.

On April 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an interview to Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian media outlets, in which he outlined Russia’s position on the ongoing South China Sea territorial disputes.

Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s traditional stance on the issue, expressing support for a diplomatic solution, commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and compliance with the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). He welcomed an early conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct (COC). He also touched upon the issue of internationalization of the South China Sea dispute saying, «Our position is determined by the wish, natural for any normal country, to see disputes resolved directly between the countries involved in a peaceful political and diplomatic manner, without any interference from third parties or any attempts to internationalize these disputes».

Russia’s biggest advantage is that it has no territorial claims in South East Asia. And unlike the US that seeks to extend their influence in the Asia Pacific and is in fact frenetically preparing for a future clash, Russia’s interest lies in redistributing power in the region.

Russia does not oppose anybody in the Asia Pacific. It strives to develop good relations with China, Japan, Vietnam, South and North Koreas, as well as other states of the region. Russia is an international actor that does not take sides. It makes it a perfect mediator able to bring down tensions and help find a solution to the problem. Anyway, holding talks is the only way to settle the regional disputes. 

Tags: Asia-Pacific  China  Japan