All Bark and No Bite?

With a less than favourable historical relationship, Sino-Japanese relations have reached an all time low amidst tensions over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. With both sides interested in securing control of the contested territory, recent reports show increased hostility from both states. Comparing the Chinese approach to territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines brings a key question to light – is China bullying its neighbours? China has not adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to territorial disputes. Relations between China and the Philippines (as well as Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan) over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands are the perfect examples of shifting power dynamics, due in part to the growing influence of external powers. Amidst growing concern that the China threat will no longer be contained, I wonder whether China is the great power, or a great power among many in a region on the rise. Strong claims to the Spratly and Senkaku islands certainly point to signs that China is desperate to hold on to its reputation as Asia’s reigning superpower.

Image courtesy of Tiffini M. Jones, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Tiffini M. Jones, © 2009, some rights reserved.

What makes these territories worth the risk of a security crisis? With the fourth largest country in the world and an economy heavily reliant on exports, China is clearly dependent on accessible shipping lanes and routes. Constricting China’s accessibility would place them in a position of isolation and, inevitably, result in a loss of control within the region. It is clear that these territorial claims are strategic ones in the interest of China’s economic stability. There have been speculations that the East China Sea holds vast supplies of natural gas and oil. In fact, the BBC alludes that the “Chinese estimate puts possible oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels – 10 times the proven reserves of the US” [1]. This would give China a strategic advantage and further cement its status as a force to be reckoned with.

 Sino-Japanese relations are still plagued by memories of the Second World War. This negative historical legacy lives on in the Japanese government approved ‘textbook scandal’ in which the Nanjing massacre of 1937 was seemingly written out. Even more controversial is the Yasukini shrine, dedicated to those who died serving the Japanese Emperor. The shrine has been met by outrage from the Chinese public, with some arguing it has allowed Japanese war criminals the status of martyrdom. Despite stable economic relations since the end of the war, territorial disputes have kept political ties strenuous. These reached a critical point in 2010 when a Chinese trawling boat collided with Japanese coast guard ships by the contested Senkaku islands. The Chinese crew were held in Japan following the collision. The situation has only worsened for China, as the Japanese government purchased the Senkaku islands from a private Japanese owner in 2012. This was met by wide-scale protests in China, where it is believed that the islands were not the individual owner’s to sell. Clearly, Japan is not responding to any intended threats.

In comparison to the tumultuous Sino-Japanese relationship, Sino-Filipino relations have involved consistent attempts at cooperation following the Joint Trade Agreement in 1975. This has involved frequent diplomatic visits between the two states and involvement in several joint research projects on the Spratly islands. However, these efforts ceased following the 2012 incident involving a Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The ramifications of this incident included a ban on trade between the two states. On September 6th, the Philippines recalled their ambassador to China. Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin reported signs of the beginnings of a Chinese structure being built on the Scarborough Shoal. What’s more, President Aquino recently cancelled his trip to China after the Chinese government requested the trip be postponed or rescheduled, yet again demonstrating a relationship on the decline.

Diplomacy and politics are only half the battle. The other, more significant threat that China poses comes from its growing military power. Despite an increase of 0.8 percent this year, Japan’s military spending is still unofficially capped at 1 percent of their annual GDP. With China’s military budget doubling that at 2 percent, this presents itself as an obvious concern for the Japanese defence of the Senkaku islands. Whilst China’s military budget and its capabilities are undoubtedly on the rise, the rate at which this is occurring can be debated. China obtained its first aircraft carrier last year, but the carrier is only to be used for training exercises and is not yet fully operation. In response, last month Japan launched its own helicopter destroyer, the Izumo. Is this call to arms Japan readying for battle or simply keeping up appearances? While the Philippines’ naval strength pales in comparison to both Japan and China, this brings to the table an entirely new debate on state intervention and strategic alliances.

Primary outside intervention in Sino-Filipino relations comes from the United States, who has a long history of military presence in the Philippines. The United States called for ASEAN to act as a single unitary voice and mediate the situation, however this has proven unsuccessful. Recent developments have seen the United States actively engaging in the dispute, including the decision to host ‘war games’ a mere 200km from the contested Scarborough Shoal as a demonstration of strong ties in the face of the Chinese threat. With the United States keen to subdue the growing threat posed by China and its race for resources and territorial control, is it only a matter of time before they embark in similar games with Japan? Perhaps not. With the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, Japan has the backing of the United States and its naval capabilities should they be in need.

With a growing economy and military, is China now an unstoppable force? Is it only a matter of time before the Senkaku and Spratly islands become official territories of the People’s Republic of China? According to Richard Katz, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In what Katz sees as ‘mutually assured production’, trade-relations will keep the peace, as “China needs to buy Japanese products as much as Japan needs to sell them” [2]. However, in the case of Sino-Filipino relations, is the threat of external intervention the only thing keeping the conflict at bay, or will Sino-American interdependence keep the peace? Is the China threat really all bark and no bite?


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