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Vietnamese vessel in contested waters near a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea
This handout photo taken on June 23 by Vietnam’s maritime police allegedly shows a Chinese boat (left) ramming a Vietnamese vessel in contested waters near a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea. AFP

Let’s not let history repeat itself

Does “new China” equal “old Japan”? Or more pointedly, does China risk becoming the Japan of seven decades past: a rising nation that sparks conflict and then war under the guise of “Asia for Asians”?

Let’s hope not, but the thought did occur in viewing an old Japanese wartime propaganda poster from the Philippines on display at a small but powerful exhibition in New York City marking the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. The language of the poster is particularly striking in the context of the continued economic and military rise of China and that nation’s relations with Cambodia and the rest of a changing Southeast Asia.

The poster, which depicts parts of East and Southeast Asia, in English reads: “December 8th. The third anniversary of Greater East Asia War to defend Asia for and by the Asiatics. Japan’s victory is the Philippines’ Triumph.” December 8th is, of course, the date from Asia’s side of the dateline of Japan’s attack on US forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Recent protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan related to mainland China are not on the formal agenda of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks between the United States and China that end today. But they and Chinese maritime moves are likely to have cast a shadow on the talks, which since 2009 have provided a diplomatic platform for US-China discussion on bilateral, regional and global opportunities and challenges. Trouble is brewing in the East China and South China seas, where an increasingly assertive China is seen, fairly or not, by many of its neighbours as a schoolyard bully, taking by force what it can’t through diplomacy.

The stationing of a massive floating deepwater oil rig by China into waters also claimed by Vietnam is the latest flashpoint and tensions continue to escalate. Riots flared in Vietnam against factories and other interests perceived as linked to China, and video footage of what seems to be a massive Chinese ship ramming and sinking a much smaller Vietnamese fishing boat has hit the internet.

The last few weeks, let alone years, are no model for a way forward when it comes to dispute resolution.

Cases in point: In November, China announced an expanded air defence zone encompassing airspace that overlapped with claims by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And in the past few months, Chinese military planes have come dangerously close to those of the US and Japan. China, Taiwan and Japan also all claim the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese.

To the south, in an area that China claims is all its own, within a “nine-dash line” skirting the coasts of several Southeast Asian nations, Chinese ships now patrol a reef still claimed by the Philippines, which calls it Scarborough Shoal.

So far, China is losing the external public relations war even as its actions no doubt may play well at home amid a slowing economy and growing concerns over pollution
and corruption.

Pointedly, at a recent Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a new “Asian Security concept” that in essence calls for Asian security to be left to Asians. China has indeed “stood up”, and a century of “humiliation” at the hands of Western powers is long over, as the world’s second-largest economy resumes its “rightful” place in the world order.

Flash back to the 1930s and 1940s as imperial Japan’s propaganda machine exhorted Asians to control their own destinies and throw aside the yoke of colonial rule. Asia for Asians was the mantra. And better yet, Japan’s leaders argued, come join Japan in a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, where all would benefit as Japan took its rightful leadership role in the region.

And we all know how well that played out. Japan’s vision of Asia for Asians led it and much of the Asia-Pacific region down a path to destruction. From the ashes of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars that followed, a new paradigm evolved with the US helping guarantee a Pacific peace that has allowed Asia to prosper and, ironically, China to rise. It is that defence status quo being challenged by China even as the US and Japan seek to reaffirm it.

At the Asia Security Summit held recently in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both raised China’s ire with statements challenging Chinese territorial moves.

The US “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged”, Hagel said. “We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert [its] claims.” Abe, in his keynote address, announced Japan’s intention to play a greater role in regional security, in ensuring open skies and sea-lanes, and in supporting Southeast Asian nations in territorial disputes with China. The potential for continued conflict remains.

Sadly, there is no third party to intervene and in a face-saving move make clear that all sides need to let cooler heads prevail. China should pull back its oil rig. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations must work together now and a clear code of conduct be established in the South China Sea, even as territorial claims remain unresolved. And every nation, Japan, China and the US included, should treat each other with respect.

With tensions mounting, it is time for all players to take a step back from the brink of even greater conflict and commit to engagement, cooperation and a peaceful resolution to disputes. This will be essential if this century is to be one of shared peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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