- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2012

U.S. efforts to counter the rise of Chinese military power in the Pacific faced a significant setback this week when Beijing dispatched two surveillance ships to assert sovereignty over a chain of small islands governed by Japan.

The Chinese deployment came just days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the region and called on Beijing and neighboring countries to ease the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

“Now is the time for everyone to make efforts to reduce tensions and strengthen the diplomatic involvement,” Mrs. Clinton said Sunday at the end of a trip that appears to have had little impact on China’s desire to demonstrate its power in the region.

Mrs. Clinton’s visit was part of the Obama administration’s stated “pivot” of geopolitical resources toward Asia. While the pivot has so far seen new emphasis placed on U.S. alliances with Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the limits of U.S. influence are being exposed by China’s ongoing muscle-flexing, many analysts say.

The question of what the United States can actually do to ease tensions is one “currently stumping a lot of people at the State Department,” said Christian Le Miere, the research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The South and East China seas have long been rich fishing grounds and now are known to contain many undersea oil and gas fields as well. Tensions between China and its neighbors over competing territorial claims there have simmered for years.

On Tuesday, the friction increased when China’s surveillance ships reached the waters around the Diaoyu islands — known in Japan as the Senkaku islands. Tokyo dispatched a Japanese Coast Guard cutter in response Wednesday.

China deployed the ships after Japan announced that it had completed a planned purchase of uninhabited archipelago of five islands from a private Japanese owner.

While tiny, the islands are considered strategically vital because they sit astride major shipping lanes, in addition to the fishing and drilling rights in the East China Sea that sovereignty over them brings.

Analysts say competing territorial claims are fueled by a determination on the part of the region’s smaller nations to secure their access to such resources in the shadow of China’s rise as a regional superpower.

“The level of political and diplomatic tension over the South China Sea is not a passing phenomenon,” said Victor Cha, who heads the Asian Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington.

U.S. officials have called for the region’s territorial disputes to be resolved through multilateral diplomacy among all the claimants,and free of Chinese military menance.

Mr. Le Miere said the United States “has to tow a careful line” in the region.

If U.S. officials insert themselves too aggressively into what China regards as a series of bilateral disputes, it will likely provoke a stern diplomatic rebuff from Beijing and jeopardize some of delicate alliances Washington is now attempting to nurture in the region, Mr. Le Miere said.

Mr Cha agreed that U.S. officials needed to carefully calibrate their diplomacy, but for another reason.

“I think it’s entirely possible that you could see some sort of accident or military flair-up between China and some other players in the region,” he said, especially if the new U.S. focus on Asia “cause[s] all these smaller countries to feel like they have a blank check to stand up to China.”

“That’s the sort of conflict I would be worried about,” he said.

Others see the competing territorial claims as a possible catalyst for shifts in the region’s geopolitical balance.

One such shift was on display Tuesday when Taiwan, a long-time U.S. ally that broke away from China, added its voice to Beijing’s in denying Japan’s sovereignty over the islands.

Recalling its representative from Tokyo, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry called the Japanese claim “an illegal act” that infringed on Taiwanese sovereignty and disregarded “historical facts and international law.”

“Taiwan’s claim in a sense provides historic reinforcement for Beijing’s” said Douglas H. Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“In a sense these claims bind China and Taiwan together,” Mr. Paal said.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou made a rare visit to the area, stopping at a Taiwanese islet near the Diaoyou Islands.

The issue gives Mr. Ma, who is often accused of being “soft” on China, the chance to present himself as a champion of Taiwanese national claims over the islands, Mr. Paal said.

China, meanwhile, claims the islands were originally part of its Taiwan province. But in 1895, when Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese Empire, Tokyo claimed them.

Japan renounced its claim to most Chinese territory after WWII, but the islands were not included. The archipelago was under U.S. trusteeship until 1970’s, when the islands were returned to Japan and were subsequently sold to a private owner.

China’s Foreign Ministry called Japan’s announcement that it was now buying the islands back “completely illegal and invalid” and said the development “cannot change the reality that Japan is seeking to steal the islands.”

Some observers see it as significant that the two vessels Beijing sent to the islands are from the China Marine Surveillance agency, or CMS. Although organizationally separate from China’s navy, CMS is one of several such law-enforcement or paramilitary maritime agencies that Beijing has increasingly used in recent years to assert or buttress territorial claims in the South and East China seas, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

CMS is the largest of these agencies, with about 300 ships, the report states. Although the vessels are unarmed or lightly armed, some are as large as a U.S. frigate. They can be intimidating and effective in a standoff at sea, especially with civilian craft. CMS vessels were involved in a confrontation with Philippine fishing boats off the disputed Scarborough Shoal last month.

The use of such non-naval assets corresponds with Beijing’s view that the Diaoyu islands are Chinese territory. It presents a dilemma to China’s neighbors, which mostly lack such paramilitary marine forces. If they respond by dispatching naval vessels, they risk being accused of further inflaming tensions.

Mr. Ma has advocated shelving the dispute over sovereignty and negotiating a resource-sharing agreement among the claimants to exploit fishing and drilling rights.

“A settlement on sovereignty is not obtainable for now,” said Mr. Paal, “but if a deal can be reached on sharing resources, that might take the heat out of the situation. What’s unclear is whether Tokyo and Beijing will go along.”

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