Asian Powers React to Territorial Disputes at ASEAN Forum
Ongoing tensions over territorial disputes in Asia were brought to the foreground last week by several events. ASEAN foreign ministers for the first time failed to agree on a final communiqué at their annual meeting, due to divisions amongst members over how to handle disputes in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, tensions between Japan and China flared up over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. On the sidelines of the forum, South Korea, Japan, and the US met to discuss strengthening mechanisms for national security cooperation amidst stalled progress on the Korean peninsula. Our latest post highlights commentary in China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea on these developments.
Official Chinese rhetoric at the ASEAN meeting expressed support for formulating a Code of Conduct to address disputes in the South China Sea, while commentary in the state and party-owned newspapers were less accommodating, blaming Vietnam, the Philippines, and more broadly the United States, for the region’s tensions:
- “Public opinion in China is already on the brink of boiling over,” said a Global Times editorial. “Further provocation from Vietnam and the Philippines would mean direct confrontation with China’s angry public.”
- The People’s Daily opined that “US interference in Asia-Pacific may be self defeating,” and that enabling Southeast Asian countries to “side with the US against China” will only entangle the US in South China Sea disputes.
On Sino-Japanese relations, the People’s Daily called the Japanese government’s recent proposal to purchase islands a “farce,” saying that “if it develops unchecked, it will surely result in the issue of the Diaoyu Islands spiraling out of control.”
It was widely reported in the Indian press that Vietnam’s decision to extend an oil exploration contract to an Indian company was a sign that Vietnam wants a continued Indian presence in the South China Sea. General commentary on the ASEAN meeting, however, was relatively sparse.
- Srikant Kondapalli, a China scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, reflecting a “Soft Nationalist” school of thought, said that India does not want to be caught in the middle of US-China rivalry in Southeast Asia. “India’s strategy in the ASEAN region is to expand economically, but not antagonize any other power as it does so.”
- In contrast, C. Raja Mohan, a Indian Express columnist known for his “Great-Power Realist” views, lamented the prevalence of the above view. Calling India’s engagement with Southeast Asia “underwhelming,” Mohan argued that “India is in a position to make a difference to the changing balance of power between the US and China.” Yet the current government’s “default inclination” of “doing nothing” is “the worst option for Delhi at this historic juncture in Asia.”
Commentary in Japan uniformly called for a moderate approach to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute with China, but was mixed on what role the US should play in these issues. Several editorials also recognized ASEAN’s growing importance in resolving maritime disputes.
- A senior Japanese diplomat in charge of Asian affairs said that “ASEAN’s growing collective influence in shaping a new regional order can no longer be disregarded.” He added that “working closely with the bloc will become strategically important, particularly in dealing with China’s maritime assertiveness.”
- The Yomiuri Shimbun, reflecting a desire to hedge with the US against Chinese power, or a “Balancer” viewpoint, argued that the US-Japan alliance plays the most important role in deterring China, and stated that “Japan must call on China through diplomatic channels to exercise self-restraint and at the same time establish systems to deal with China’s provocations.”
- Ukeru Magosaki, a Foreign Ministry diplomat, on the other hand expressed what the RPI has termed a “Bandwagoner” perspective that prioritizes the importance of Sino-Japanese ties, and urged Japan to “table” the Senkaku Island dispute, arguing that “if Japan should take a hard-line stand, China will also be forced to take a similar stand,” adding that “it is overly optimistic to believe that the U.S. will protect Japan under the security treaty…we will have to ask if the United States would really choose a course of all-out-war with China for the sake of Japan.”
Dmitry Mosyakov, Director of the Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania Centre at the RAS Oriental Studies Institute, assessed Sino-American competition for control in Southeast Asia and argued that there is a growing wish in the region to see the US protect ASEAN countries against Chinese expansion. However, China’s burgeoning economic ties with ASEAN give Beijing significant leverage over the region. Espousing a “Great Power Balancer” point of view, he observed that “as the confrontation between the USA and China sharpens, each side assigns ASEAN an important role and is trying to pull the states of the region on to its side,” he observed. Meanwhile, Mosyakov warned that “Russia, which has assumed a wait-and-see position, risks being sidelined in this dynamic region.”
The ASEAN forum renewed calls for “peaceful dialogue” on the Korean Peninsula to ease tension and rebuild confidence amid security jitters over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The foreign ministers of South Korea, the US, and Japan agreed to establish a working group to “discuss issues such as peacekeeping, disaster relief, and development cooperation.”
- An editorial in the Korea Times encouraged the US to ” no longer regard Korea as just a variable between the two constants of China and Japan, but treat Seoul…as a constant in itself.” Korea “could -and should- play the role of a mediator or stabilizer, if not balancer.”