TIME China

China Is Building an Island Large Enough for an Airstrip in Disputed Waters

The reclaimed land mass is situated among the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, claimed by five Southeast Asian nations

China appears to be building an island large enough to carry an airstrip in a disputed part of the South China Sea.

Satellite imagery shows a narrow land mass and harbor area taking shape over the previously submerged Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, reports IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.

This is the fourth such Chinese project in the archipelago, located between the Philippines and Vietnam, and by far the largest.

Tensions have run high in the South China Sea for decades, but especially since the recent discovery of oil-and-gas deposits in the region. Earlier this summer, China and Vietnam came at loggerheads over the Chinese deployment of an oil rig in contested waters.

If China does build an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, it would put Beijing on a par with Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam who all have such capability in the Spratlys.

“It appears that’s what they’re working toward,” U.S. military spokesman Lieut. Colonel Jeffrey Pool told Agence France-Presse. “We urge China to stop its land-reclamation program, and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities.”

Fiery Cross Reef was previously only equipped with a concrete platform, operated by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. The platform hosts a garrison, a pier, air-defense guns, antifrogmen defenses, communications equipment and a greenhouse, and may soon be connected to the new island.

The dredgers currently at work on the reef are also creating a harbor that appears big enough to receive tankers and major surface combatant vessels.

TIME indonesia

New Indonesian President Jokowi Talks Tough With Fading Power Australia

Indonesia's new President Widodo shouts "Merdeka" or Freedom at the end of his speech, during his inauguration in Jakarta
Indonesia's new President Joko Widodo shouts "Merdeka," meaning freedom, at the end of his speech, during his inauguration at the parliament's building in Jakarta on Oct. 20, 2014 Darren Whiteside—Reuters

Indonesia's newfound chest-thumping may simply be a fledgling administration's efforts to win domestic approval, but is nonetheless indicative of shifting powers in the region

Two days before his Oct. 20 inauguration, new Indonesian President Joko Widodo, gave Australia a stern warning not to test the territorial sovereignty of the world’s largest archipelago.

“We will give a warning that this is not acceptable,” Jokowi, as he is widely known, told Fairfax Media in reference to half a dozen incursions into Indonesian waters last year by Australian navy ships turning back boats full of predominantly Middle Eastern asylum seekers. “We have international law, you must respect international law.”

Bolstering Jokowi’s message, Indonesia’s new Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi — the first ever female in the role — confirmed on Wednesday a departure from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s principle of “thousand friends, zero enemies” to national interests first.

“To uphold our political sovereignty, what we must do is preserve the sovereignty of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia,” Retno said at her first press conference. “We’ll do this firmly and clearly.”

The interception one day earlier of a Singaporean passenger aircraft over a well-traveled flight path that cuts through Indonesian airspace may be indicative of Jakarta’s new hard-line stance. Indonesian fighter jets forced the aircraft to land and pay a $4,900 fine — despite protestation from the Singaporean owner, ST Aerospace, that it had been using the route for a number of years without the need for prior clearance from Indonesia’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

However, these messages must be read within the context of Indonesia’s time-honored political melodrama, where tough talk against meddling foreign powers is par for the course. It’s also an easy and predictable way for new administration to score political points on the home front. “I think Jokowi’s warning to Australia was made for domestic consumption rather that advocating a nationalistic tone in foreign policy,” says Philips Vermonte, head of international relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Indeed, Jokowi’s apparent double standards when dealing with Chinese incursions in the fish- and gas-rich waters of the Natuna Islands, on the northwest coast of Indonesian Borneo, seems to demonstrate diplomatic nuance rather than a new era of nationalistic fervor.

As recently as March 2013, armed Chinese ships bullied Indonesian patrol boats into releasing Chinese fisherman caught trawling illegally near Natuna. China has also included parts of the waters around Natuna within its so-called nine-dash line — its vague southern maritime boundary, adding Indonesia to the long list of countries it’s dueling with over aggressive claims to some 90% of the South China Sea.

In April, Indonesia’s armed-forces chief General Moeldoko penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising to strengthen Indonesian forces on Natuna and prepare fighter jets to meet “any eventuality.”

But two months later, during a presidential-election debate in June, Jokowi claimed Indonesia had no beef with China. In later interviews he adroitly turned the burning strategic problem with China on its head, suggesting Indonesia could serve as an “honest broker” vis-a-vis the Middle Kingdom’s disputes with other countries in the South China Sea.

This should not, however, be understood to mean the new Indonesian administration will be pushovers. Its soft stance on overlapping territorial claims with China is obviously linked to the fact that China is Indonesia’s second largest export trading partner. Australia, meanwhile, barely makes the top 10.

The lesson, it seems, more concerns shifting regional power than newfound Indonesian belligerence. “Australia needs to understand that Indonesia’s place in the world is growing, while it is not,”
 adds Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the Melbourne Law School. By current estimates, he adds, Indonesia will have world’s seventh largest economy in around a decade and the fifth largest by 2050. “Australia’s current policies of turning back the boats doesn’t seem to factor in any of that at all,” says Lindsey.

“I think Australia would be advised to take [Jokowi’s latest about naval incursions] warning very seriously, and that it would be unwise to look at it in narrow terms by saying, ‘Their navy is very small so it’s not a valid threat,’” opines Antje Missbach, a research fellow at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences in Melbourne. “There are many ways Indonesia could make a point without involving its navy.”

Moreover, she adds, “Look what happened last time Australia offended them,” referring to when Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Australia for six months following revelations by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden that Australia had spied on Yudhoyono and his wife.

Speaking to TIME, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says, “It is not the government’s policy to incur Indonesia’s waters” and blames past incursions on the opposition government it replaced following the September 2013 general elections. “[We’re] working closely with the new government of Indonesia on people-smuggling issues and we are optimistic about initial responses,” Morrison says.

Optimism is one thing; keeping out of your neighbor’s backyard is another altogether.

— With reporting by Yenni Kwok

Read next: Australia’s Top ISIS Militant Killed: Sources

TIME Vietnam

Risking China’s Ire, India Signs Defense and Oil Deals With Vietnam

Vietnam's PM Dung waves next to his Indian counterpart Modi at the forecourt of India's presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi
Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung waves next to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during Dung's ceremonial reception at the forecourt of India's presidential palace in New Delhi on Oct. 28, 2014 Adnan Abidi—Reuters

The agreements were signed during a visit to India by the Vietnamese Prime Minister

On Tuesday, India pledged to supply naval vessels to Vietnam and also secured oil exploration rights from Hanoi in parts of the contentious South China Sea, in moves that promise to ruffle a few feathers in Beijing.

The announcement came during Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s two-day visit to India, during which his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi pledged to “quickly operationalize” the $100 million line of credit established during Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Hanoi in September.

Along with an expedited sale of four offshore patrol ships, India will also take up enhanced training programs for the Vietnamese military, according to the Economic Times.

The agreements come at a time when the Vietnam, along with several other Southeast Asian nations, is locked in territorial disputes with Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Everybody’s worried about what China’s going to do next,” says A.B. Mahapatra, director of New Delhi–based think tank the Centre for Asian and Strategic Studies–India. “That is a common concern between [India and Vietnam] now, because all through history they never thought that they should expand their trade relationship or their defense relationship.”

Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, reasserted Beijing’s claim to the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea, but said it would not object to any joint exploration by India and Vietnam in undisputed waters.

“But if such cooperation harms China’s sovereignty and interests, we will resolutely oppose it,” he said.

Both Vietnam and India are growing closer to China economically, and a recent visit to New Delhi by Chinese President Xi Jinping yielded agreements worth billions of dollars.

But Mahapatra points out that neither Indian nor Vietnamese economic dependence on China precludes territorial conflict, and assumptions that Beijing would not destabilize a region in which it has economic interests have proved wrong time and again.

“[India and Vietnam] realize that if they don’t encounter China now, they will lose [the territory] forever,” he says.

TIME Vietnam

Top Vietnamese Minister Says It’s Time for the U.S. to Drop the Arms Embargo

China suggests six steps to boost ASEAN ties
Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of the 11th China-ASEAN Expo and the 11th China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Nanning, China, on Sept.16, 2014 Peng Huan—Imaginechina

Washington looks like it might agree

Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh has said that Hanoi would welcome the U.S. dropping a decades-old arms embargo against his country.

“Nearly 20 years ago, we normalized the relations with the United States and in 2013 we set up the comprehensive partnership with the United States,” he said during a talk at the Asia Society in New York City on Wednesday. “So the relation is normal and the ban on [selling] lethal weapons to Vietnam is abnormal.”

Minh’s pronouncement came a day after Reuters published a story citing an unidentified American official and two senior executives in the U.S. weapons industry who stated that Washington was on the verge of lifting the 30-year-old ban targeting its erstwhile enemy.

The assessment follows similar comments made earlier in the summer by Ted Osius, who is currently awaiting confirmation of his appointment as the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. During a hearing with a Senate panel in June, the veteran diplomat said it might be “time to begin exploring the possibility of lifting the ban.”

“I think dropping of the embargo would represent a significant change in the relationship in a variety of important respects,” says Jonathan London, a professor and Vietnamese scholar at Hong Kong’s City University, and the author of Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations.

“Not only would Vietnam be able to acquire arms and equipment, which it sorely needs particularly with respect to maritime capabilities, but it would also imply opportunities to deepen military-to-military ties between the countries and I think arguably that’s at least as significant as the ability to acquire arms.”

The warming of ties between Hanoi and Washington follows an exceptionally rocky period in relations between Vietnam and Beijing.

In May, Vietnam’s smoldering distrust of its northern neighbor erupted after a billion-dollar drilling platform belonging to a Chinese state-owned company dropped anchor in the middle of fiercely contested waters near the disputed Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea.

The presence of the drilling unit set off riots across Vietnam and led to months of maritime clashes as Vietnamese cutters tangled with Chinese coast guard vessels, until the rig was withdrawn from the contentious site in July.

Despite increased tensions with Beijing, experts say Vietnam’s leadership remains pragmatic and unlikely to abruptly give up its relationship with China for the sake of closer ties with Washington.

“Vietnam is a long way from joining any alliance with the U.S. — it doesn’t even participate in the CARAT [Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training] naval cooperation exercises with the U.S. that almost every other ASEAN country does,” Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for the Power in Asia, tells TIME.

“However, it is hedging its bets and warning China to moderate its actions in the South China Sea, particularly.”

During the question-and-answer session at the Asia Society, Foreign Minister Minh brushed off the suggestion by the society’s moderator that the potential sale of U.S. hardware to Vietnam would irritate Beijing.

“If we do not buy weapons from the United States, we will still buy weapons from other countries,” said Minh.

TIME Vietnam

China Removes Contentious Oil Rig From Waters Claimed by Vietnam

Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea
A Chinese coast-guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam on June 13, 2014. Reuters

But as its deployment led to fierce anti-Chinese rioting across Vietnam, don’t except Hanoi and Beijing to rekindle their once fraternal ties anytime soon

The rig is finally gone, but unlikely to be long forgotten.

On Tuesday, the state-backed China Oilfield Services Limited said the billion-dollar platform, which had been drilling in the heart of highly contested waters claimed by Vietnam, had “precisely extracted the related geological data as planned” and was being redeployed to sea blocks off China’s Hainan Island.

The Vietnamese coast guard confirmed the platform was being towed out of the disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam but occupied by the Chinese, late Tuesday night.

Since early May, the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig had been anchored in waters that Vietnam claims fall well within its exclusive economic zone. Hanoi responded to the unannounced arrival by allowing the public to hold the first large-scale demonstrations in recent memory.

However, smoldering nationalist anger exploded into deadly bouts of rioting at industrial parks in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City and in central Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province in mid-May.

Factories were razed, several Chinese workers were killed and relations between the neighbors deteriorated to their lowest ebb since diplomatic ties were renewed in the early 1990s.

Beijing remained unmoved by Hanoi’s objections, despite continued protests from the highest levels of government.

“The relations are certainly damaged and the outlook is not encouraging, particularly as China has indicated it has plans to send out more oil rigs to disputed waters and has made provocative statements with respect to its plans in the Spratly chain,” Jonathan D. London, a professor and Vietnamese scholar at Hong Kong’s City University, tells TIME.

Tensions remain high. A study released by the Pew Research Center on Monday reported that 84% of the Vietnamese polled said they were concerned that conflict could erupt with their northern neighbor.

Professor Bruce Jacobs, an Asia expert at Australia’s Monash University, says the deployment of Haiyang Shiyou 981 must be viewed within the context of Beijing’s brazen maneuvers to consolidate its long-held, albeit highly disputed, grandiose maritime claims across the Asia-Pacific. “The oil rig was just part of that,” he says.

With China unrepentant, the U.S. has attempted to use the episode to strengthen relations with its Asian partnerships and position itself as an arbitrator in the Pacific.

Last week Michael Fuchs, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Strategy and Multilateral Affairs, called on all states claiming a stake in the South China Sea “to clarify and agree to voluntarily freeze certain actions and activities that escalate disputes and cause instability.”

In response, Beijing accused the U.S. of unsolicited meddling.

“We hope that countries outside the region can stay neutral, distinguish right from wrong and truly respect the joint efforts made by regional countries for peace and stability of the region,” said Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, on Tuesday.

TIME China

Many Asian Nations Believe That a War With China Is Looming

Abner Afuang, a retired policeman, sets fire to an inverted Chinese national flag in a protest action in Manila,
Abner Afuang, a retired policeman, sets fire to an inverted Chinese national flag during a protest in Manila on June 9, 2014. Romeo Ranoco—Reuters

A majority in the Asian countries polled in a new Pew study say they fear a looming military conflict with China

China’s neighbors fear the worst is yet to come.

Strong-arm tactics and tough talk coming from Beijing in the past year have succeeded in convincing neighboring countries that war may just be around the corner, according to a new poll released by the Pew Research Center.

“In all 11 Asian nations polled, roughly half or more say they are concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to a military conflict,” read the report published by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank on Monday.

In Vietnam, where relations with Beijing have been exceptionally tense since a state-owned Chinese drilling platform moved into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands in early May, 84% of participants said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that territorial disputes could lead to war.

In Japan, which is embroiled with Beijing in disputes over vacant outcroppings in the East China Sea, 85% concurred.

Farther south in the Philippines, 93% of those polled feared the possibility of conflict with China. The archipelago nation has a number of ongoing disputes with China in the South China Sea and, much to Beijing’s chagrin, is pursuing international arbitration in a bid to settle those claims.

While many of the territorial disagreements with China have been ongoing for years, a number of incidents initiated by Beijing in the past nine months have led to increasingly strained ties across the region.

The perennially taut relationship between Tokyo and Beijing reached a flash point late last year when China unilaterally declared the establishment of an air-defense zone that covered the skies over disputed isles in the East China Sea.

Both Manila and Hanoi have meanwhile accused China of maintaining a large presence of paramilitary vessels, coast-guard ships and fishing boats in disputed maritime areas in a bid to edge rival nations out of contested waters. Experts following the region say the tactic must have had clearance from the upper echelons of power in Beijing.

“Xi Jinping and the central military commission as well as key figures in Zhongnanhai — they took a calculated risk,” Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia office, tells TIME. “China is testing the tensile strength of the sort of hub-and-spokes alliance system in the region.”

A majority of the Filipinos, Japanese, Vietnamese and South Koreans surveyed considered China as their nation’s top threat and the U.S. as their nation’s most important ally, according to Pew.

Only Pakistani and Malaysian respondents named the U.S. as their top foe and saw China as their biggest ally. (Indonesia was the lone country where respondents named the U.S. as both their biggest threat and No. 1 partner.)

The publication of the Pew poll comes after Washington has upped both economic and military cooperation with its Asian allies and fostered relations with former foe Vietnam to counter China’s increasingly brazen moves in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing has not responded kindly.

“What we seem to be seeing is increasing polarization in Washington and in Beijing,” says Neill. “The Sino-U.S. relationship is going through a rocky period.”

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling on China to avoid engaging in behavior that would “destabilize the Asia-Pacific region” and to refrain from enforcing its air-defense zone.

But Beijing does not appear to be interested in backing down. An editorial published in the state-linked Global Times on Monday fired back at Washington.

“[China] has the right to safeguard its sovereignty and it has no intention to go to war,” read the editorial. “China will not make trouble, but equally is unafraid of any trouble.”

TIME China

China Says Vietnamese Vessels Rammed Its Boats ‘1,416 Times’

Tension Rises In Disputed Area of South China Sea
A Chinese coast guard ship navigates around Chinese drilling equipment located in waters off the disputed Paracel Islands on May 28, 2014. The Asahi Shimbun

It's the latest in the war of words between the two countries

China’s Foreign Ministry has accused Vietnam of ramming into its ships more than 1,400 times near a highly controversial Chinese oil rig, according to a statement issued on Sunday night.

Vietnam, as well as other Southeast Asian nations, has been involved in a tense dispute with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“As of 5 p.m. on 7 June, there were as many as 63 Vietnamese vessels in the area at the peak, attempting to break through China’s cordon and ramming the Chinese government ships for a total of 1,416 times,” said Chinese officials.

Beijing’s claim comes two days after Vietnam’s state television aired a video that appeared to show a Chinese ship chasing a small Vietnamese boat — later sinking it.

Tension over China’s drilling operations near the disputed Paracel Islands escalated into anti-China riots in Vietnam in May. Up to four Chinese citizens were killed.

[BBC]

TIME China

China Fires Back at U.S. Criticism Over Asia-Pacific Instability

From left: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, China's deputy chief of General Staff during the start of their meeting on May 31, 2014 in Singapore.
From left: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, China's deputy chief of General Staff during the start of their meeting on May 31, 2014 in Singapore. Pablo Martinez Monsivais—Getty Images

The gloves came off between the U.S. and China during a defense conference in Asia over the weekend, following Beijing’s forays into disputed areas of the South China Sea early last month

Diplomatic platitudes took a backseat to tough talk in Singapore over the weekend, as Beijing slammed Washington for investing in a “containment fantasy” after the U.S. accused China of overseeing “destabilizing” maneuvers in the South China Sea.

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel laid into China for allowing a state-owned drilling rig to drop anchor in the heart of heavily contested waters off the Vietnamese coast. He was speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims,” Hagel told the conference. “We also oppose any effort — by any nation — to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation, whether from military or civilian vessels [or] from countries big or small.”

Beijing did not take kindly to the forceful criticism.

“Hagel’s speech was full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation,” said Lieut. General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, on Sunday.

“It was a speech to abet destabilizing factors to create trouble and make provocations. It was not a constructive speech.”

China’s stated-backed Global Times on Sunday railed against the Obama Administration’s renewed diplomatic thrust into Asia, which Beijing derides as a thinly veiled effort to contain China’s rise.

“Strengthened military alliance against China does not contribute to regional stability that the United States has touted for, but rather constitutes a provocative and hostile move that stirs up regional tension,” read an editorial.

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue came at an increasingly hostile time in the region. Just four days before the meeting commenced, Hanoi accused Chinese vessels of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat near the controversial oil rig in the South China Sea.

The incident was the latest flash point between the countries since the drilling platform entered waters claimed by Vietnam last month.

During a keynote address on Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered to supply both the Philippines and Vietnam with patrol boats. Japan has its own bitter territorial disputes with Beijing.

“Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies,” said Abe, according to the BBC.

Wang later dismissed the Japanese Prime Minister’s comments as “provocative.”

TIME Asia

Abe Moves a Step Closer to Easing Restraints on Japan’s Military

JAPAN-POLITICS-DEFENCE-HISTORY
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on May 15, 2014 Kazuhiro Nogi—AFP/Getty Images

Japan's Prime Minister makes an explicit connection between China's territorial ambitions in the South and East China seas and Japan's ability to defend itself and its allies

Against the backdrop of violent clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese patrol ships in the South China Sea last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to change the interpretation of the country’s pacifist constitution to allow Japan’s armed forces to engage in “collective self-defense.”

That means Japan’s potent but currently low-profile military would be allowed to fight alongside the U.S. or other friendly forces — even if Japanese troops or territory do not come under direct attack first.

In a live, televised speech, Abe made a direct connection between the Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes and the tense standoff over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The outcrops are claimed by both Japan and China, which refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands.

“In the South China Sea, as we speak, conflict among nations continues as a unilateral action against the backdrop of force and coercion,” Abe said. “This is not a fire on the other side of the shore of the river. In the East China Sea, the Japan Coast Guard [and] the self-defense forces — under high tension, on a 24-hour, around-the-clock basis — are engaging in patrol activities [against] intrusions in Japanese territorial waters.”

Abe says the new constitutional interpretation is necessary to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance and deal with an increasingly hostile security environment in Asia.

Easing restraints on Japan’s military and instilling a sense of “patriotism” among the Japanese has long been a goal of Abe and his conservative, if not nationalist, supporters.

Under the new interpretation, Japanese troops would be able to defend U.S. ships at sea, shoot down ballistic missiles headed toward U.S. territory, protect U.N. troops on peacekeeping missions, rescue Japanese citizens overseas and engage in similar activities.

“What Abe is saying is that to play the global role that is expected of Japan, given its size and its capacity, they should be able to assist the international community in certain situations where peace and stability are in danger and in joining the defense of other countries. This is something the Americans have been asking Japan to do for decades,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

When the new policy will go into effect is still unclear. Although a national referendum is not required — as it would be if Abe had proposed changing the constitution itself — the Diet will have to amend laws regulating the self-defense forces, peacekeeping operations and related issues.

That may not be easy. Opinion polls show that roughly half the population is opposed to the new interpretation. Article 9, the foundation of Japan’s 70-year commitment to pacifism, expressly renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Although Abe’s ruling coalition holds a solid majority in both houses of the Diet, even some members of his Liberal Democratic Party have expressed reservations about the change. Debate on the issue began on Tuesday, though a final resolution is not expected until later in the year.

“People are worried about three major things: the risk that this revision will lead to the Japan Self-Defense Force being more actively engaged in overseas military operations, that this will lead to Japan’s policies under Abe being increasingly militarized and assertive, and that this will be the first step toward a new Article 9, which would not only dilute but destroy Japan’s image as a country of peace,” says Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University and author of a forthcoming book on Japan’s postwar military and security.

Abe insisted during his speech last week that Japan remains committed to peace and that the new policy — issued in the form of recommendations from an advisory panel — would not be the first step on the road to remilitarization.

While Japan’s right to defend itself independently from attack would not change, “collective self-defense” would be invoked only under a specific set of conditions and only after careful deliberations by the Cabinet, Abe said.

According to panel recommendations, “collective self-defense” would be invoked only when requested by a foreign country “in close relationship with Japan” and would involve “minimum necessary” use of force.

Abe said Japan would not be dragged into American-led multinational operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although he was not clear in how distinctions would be made.

Unsurprisingly, the new policy was viewed with suspicion by some of Japan’s neighbors.

“China, as well as the Republic of Korea, have been critical and vigilant about this for a long time. Abe’s stance on such issues as Japan’s role during World War II and comfort-women issues make most of the people in these two countries more doubtful about the reinterpretation of Japan’s right of collective self-defense,” says Tiejun Yu, assistant president at the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University in Beijing.

Not to worry – Japan will not be dispatching troops at every opportunity, counters Kuni Miyake, research director for foreign affairs and national security at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

“Collective self-defense is a right — it’s not on obligation. The government will make decisions based on each situation. We have to show that we can behave — that under our democracy, we can control ourselves and that we have self-discipline and restraint,” Miyake says.

But what if the standoff in the South China Sea were to escalate and Vietnam were to ask for Japan’s help in defending its interests from China? Would Japan invoke the right of collective self-defense and come to Vietnam’s aid?

“I think it’s unlikely. There are many, many ifs involved,” Miyake says. “But, I would not completely rule it out.”

TIME Asia

Two Ships Have Arrived in Vietnam to Evacuate Chinese Nationals

China Vietnam
Chinese passenger ships Wuzhishan, center, and Tongguling, left, seen at Haikou, capital of south China's Hainan province, before their departure on May 18, 2014 Wei Hua—AP

Three more Chinese vessels are on their way in an evacuation operation being conducted in response to anti-Chinese violence last week over long-standing territorial disputes, one day after 290 Chinese citizens were flown out aboard two chartered planes

Two Chinese passenger ships arrived early on Monday at the central-Vietnamese port of Vung Ang to evacuate Chinese nationals, who are fearing for their safety after anti-Chinese riots last week saw foreign businesses attacked, two Chinese killed and about 140 people injured.

More than 3,000 Chinese have already been helped to leave the country following protests that flared up across Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig that is drilling in waters claimed by both sides. Beijing has announced a 4.8-km exclusion zone around the rig, and Hanoi claims that there are 119 Chinese vessels in the area, including warships.

On Sunday, 290 Chinese citizens were flown out aboard two chartered planes, with another 16 critically injured Chinese evacuated on a medical flight, Xinhua news agency reports.

Public protests are a rarity in communist Vietnam. The security forces have been deployed in Ho Chi Minh City to quell new waves of demonstrations, and mobile carriers have sent repeated texts to subscribers with a message from Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asking people to stay away from further protests.

However, small groups of peaceful protesters continued to gather on Sunday, and neither side has shown any real sign of backing down over the territorial conflict, which has revived a long-standing enmity between Beijing and Hanoi.

The two Chinese vessels that arrived on Monday each have a capacity of 1,000 people and are among five boats that will take part in the evacuation operation, a port official told the Associated Press. The vessels are presently berthed at a huge Taiwanese steel-mill complex that was overrun by an anti-China mob, and their presence is eerily reminiscent of a similar evacuation in 1978 that horribly backfired.

That year, with a war with Hanoi in the offing, China also sent ships to Vietnam — to evacuate members of Vietnam’s ethnically Chinese minority, known as Hoa. Hanoi took grave affront when the vessels arrived (“The South China Sea is not China’s own pond. Haiphong and Ho Chi Minh City are not Chinese ports” read a Vietnamese commentary at the time). Instead of allowing Hoa to board the Chinese ships, the Vietnamese Public Security Bureau built boats and fleeced the ethnic Chinese of gold and currency in exchange for being allowed to leave the country aboard the rickety vessels. Thirty thousand to 40,000 Hoa, and Vietnamese pretending to be Hoa, are believed to have perished at sea as a result.

China’s Foreign Ministry meanwhile said on Sunday it had issued a warning against travel to Vietnam and was suspending some diplomatic contact.

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