To read the headlines about the increasingly belligerent maritime confrontations between China and its neighbors, one might get the sinking feeling that the warm seas of the Asian Pacific might well turn into the hot bed for global conflict. Take for instance the very public dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.
The Senkaku Islands, three basically uninhabitable clusters of rocky ridges just north of Taiwan, are again making headlines in Asia. They should be making more headlines in America, too. Not much bigger than icebergs, the Senkaku Islands are just the tip of the growing animosities between China, its Asian neighbors, and particularly Japan.
Whether or not one agrees that this is the Century of China, most would agree that China’s burgeoning wealth has fueled an increasingly capable air force and navy. In December, 2008, China sent elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA-N) Navy’s Southern Fleet through the South China Sea, past Singapore and out of the Malacca Strait to the piratical waters off the African coast of Somalia. In so doing, China announced that for the first time in 500 years, its modern fleet of destroyers is a global naval force to be reckoned with.
In recent years there have been an increasing number of headlines about maritime conflicts involving China and its neighbors over disputed authority to potentially oil-reach sea beds and abundant fisheries, primarily in the South China Sea. China (and Taiwan), along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam have a myriad of overlapping claims to the semi-submerged islands of the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal, west of the Philippines, and the Paracels off the Vietnamese coast. Maps made public by China in recent years show a dotted line that basically encircles most of the South China Sea and designating it as a region of core national interest, putting these strategically important waters on a par with Tibet or Taiwan. At the 2010 ASEAN regional meeting in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that this same region remains an important national interest to the United States.
But that line of Chinese special concern doesn’t stop within the South China Sea, and that’s where the Senkaku Islands comes in. The line’s extension is called by China its “First Island Chain of Defense.” It extends northward just inward of the Philippines and encompassing Taiwan, along the western shores of the Japanese chain of islands that include Okinawa and looping up just inside of Japan to the Korean Peninsula. The Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to the Chinese) lie within this Chinese “Chain of Defense.” And it is to this chain of islands that America could become linked to a military conflict in Asian waters.
The 2010 Chinese National Defense white paper, released in 2011, stated that “Asia-Pacific security is becoming more intricate and volatile.” China repeatedly emphasizes an “unswerving” resolve to defend its territorial claims, making it clear that its military had the physical and cyberspace capability to go on the offensive should the need arise. The 2012 Defense of Japan white paper repeatedly points to China as a major source of potential military conflict, placing Senkaku (Diaoyu) squarely on their own maps of maritime concerns and force projection. Okinawa is stated to be the very core of Japanese efforts in Asia Pacific. Particularly telling is the Japanese defense report’s emphasis on its strengthening ties with American forces. Some months ago, President Obama announced an increasing deployment of marines to the region, especially to Australia. More recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said there will evolve a shift of naval forces from 50-50 Atlantic/Pacific to a 60-40 weighting towards the Pacific.
Want to get away to a peaceful deserted island? Perhaps it would be best to scratch the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands off your list. In the exotic South China Sea and its broader Asian Pacific surround, unoccupied islands and their offshore waters have a not so funny way of being cluttered with a whole host national flags.