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Asia’s New Cold War

8 minute read
Hannah Beech / Beijing

After surviving a harrowing maritime adventure, the fishermen of Gangfu village on China’s eastern coast are sometimes presented with a rejuvenating bowl of noodles topped with duck eggs. But on Sept. 25, Gangfu’s Zhan Qixiong was lavished with a more extravagant welcome: bouquets of flowers from cheering local leaders, a chartered flight home courtesy of the Chinese government and, of course, the requisite bowl of noodles.

Zhan had endured a trial on the high seas all right, but his was no tale of a shipwrecked mariner’s rescue. Rather, the captain, 41, had returned from 18 days in detention in Japan after his trawler collided with Japanese Coast Guard boats patrolling waters near rocky isles claimed by both China and Japan. Called the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese and the Senkaku by the Japanese, the tiny outcroppings in the East China Sea have been administered by Japan for decades, but China (and Taiwan) assert historic claims over them.

(See pictures of Japan and the world.)

For his ordeal in the custody of a historical enemy, Zhan enjoyed a hero’s reception back in China. But the row has pulled relations between East Asia’s two great powers to its lowest ebb in years, showing just how delicate the balance of power remains in a region that from 1894 to 1953 suffered from near constant war. Japan contends that Chinese fishing and naval vessels in recent months have flocked in ever greater numbers to the disputed area, turning what was once a relatively placid outpost into a flash point. After the Chinese trawler and its crew were detained by the Japanese Coast Guard on Sept. 8, Beijing reacted with percussive fury, severing many diplomatic ties, slowing down Japanese cargo shipments and even briefly suspending exports of rare-earth minerals that Japan needs to manufacture everything from hybrid cars to superconductors.

Tokyo’s decision to free captain Zhan — which came shortly after four Japanese were arrested in China for allegedly trespassing in a military zone, a move widely seen as tit for tat — was supposed to defuse the diplomatic crisis. Although the ruling Democratic Party of Japan faced sniping from hard-liners for capitulating to Beijing’s hardball tactics, most Japanese understand that the countries’ economies are too closely linked for a single fishing trawler to derail relations. But after the skipper’s release, China showed few signs of wanting to ease tensions. The state-run China Daily opined that the incident had “caused irreparable damage to bilateral ties.” Beijing demanded an apology and compensation from Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan responded sniffily, saying, “We have absolutely no intention of responding to [such demands].” A day later, Tokyo proposed that Beijing pay for damages to the Japanese patrol boats caused by the trawler collision.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “Japan Then and Now.”)

Changing Currents
Japan credits its long rise to a commitment to peace after its catastrophic losses in World War II, while China has linked its recent economic-boom trajectory to a philosophy of “peaceful development.” But while both nations use the word peace, or a variant of it, whenever they can, China and Japan have become locked in a nasty war of words, with many wondering what will come next.

The growing friction reflects the shifting power dynamic in the Asia-Pacific region. This summer, if Beijing’s official figures are to be believed, China surpassed recession-plagued Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Now, a resource-hungry China is flexing its geopolitical muscle too. The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands may be uninhabited rocks, but they are thought to be surrounded by major underwater deposits of natural gas; not coincidentally, in August Beijing announced that it had dispatched a manned submarine more than two miles beneath the South China Sea to plant a Chinese flag on the seafloor. China’s increasingly assertive claim to nearly all of the South China Sea has riled other Asian nations, who believe they’re entitled to at least part of that vast aquatic expanse. Most contentious are the Spratly and Paracel islands, a scattering of coral atolls across much of the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by six governments and are located in waters — surprise, surprise — believed to hold significant untapped oil and natural-gas reserves. Even as China complained about the treatment of its trawler and crew by Japanese forces, Vietnamese officials have been quietly grumbling that Chinese naval boats routinely detain Vietnamese fishermen who venture into waters Beijing considers its own.

Read “Japan Releases Chinese Captain, but Tensions Remain.”

See pictures of a stagnant Japanese economy.

The country that has best kept the peace in this fractious neighborhood is also the one not nursing any territorial grievances: the U.S. Under long-standing security alliances, Washington vows to deploy U.S. forces to protect its Asian allies if any hostile nation — for which read: China — were to attack. In late September, around the same time Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to meet his Japanese counterpart in New York City because of the island spat, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told him the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands were covered by Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security pact, which calls for America to defend territories under the administration of Japan should they come under attack.

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. would truly contemplate a war with China over a sprinkling of rocks in the East China Sea. Nevertheless, Washington’s assurances were welcomed in a country increasingly insecure about being overshadowed by its giant neighbor. It’s not just Japan that feels that way. With China’s economic and political sway expanding in Asia just as Washington seems distracted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, other Asia-Pacific nations have been urging the U.S. to reorient its foreign policy in the region. “China will enlarge its influence in Asia and will be competing with the U.S. for influence in Asia,” says Niu Jun, professor of international relations at Peking University. “Whether this competition is good or not for Asia, we will have to see in the future.”

(See pictures of the making of modern China.)

The U.S. has taken notice. In a frank assessment earlier this year, Admiral Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that China’s rapid military modernization — as evidenced by double-digit growth of its military budget over the past decade — appears “designed to challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region or exercise aggression or coercion of its neighbors, including U.S. treaty allies and partners.” To counter China, President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Asia, has been assiduously reaffirming U.S. ties with its Asian partners. On Sept. 24, Obama held a summit with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes key American friends such as Singapore and Thailand. Pledged Obama: “As President, I’ve made it clear that the United States intends to play a leadership role in Asia.”

Home Game
There’s reason to think he means what he says. Bilateral relations with Vietnam, for example, have blossomed to the point where the countries conducted joint military exercises in the South China Sea in August. That didn’t please China any more than did recent naval drills by U.S. and South Korean troops in the Yellow Sea, which borders China’s coast. Along with other ASEAN members vying with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands, Vietnam was delighted when Secretary Clinton said in July that a peaceful resolution of territorial spats in the South China Sea was an American “national interest.” China hated that too. “There is a perception among some Chinese that the U.S. wants to weaken China and is using other countries to contain China,” says Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

(See pictures of China-Vietnam border war.)

Of course, foreign policy often has as much to do with domestic affairs as international ones. It makes sense for Obama to get tough with China when the supposed manipulation of its currency is being blamed at home for U.S. job losses. Similarly, Japanese Prime Minister Kan, who just survived a leadership challenge from within his own party, may have used a firm stance on the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue not only to placate a public ever more wary of Beijing but also to bolster his own precarious political position.

Strange though it may be to contemplate — the Chinese leadership is hardly bound by the ballot box — the same domestic imperative probably applies in Beijing too. Nationalist sentiment is on the rise in China, which doubtless makes its leaders feel that they need to talk tough on any territorial disputes involving the nation responsible for the brutal 1931-45 occupation of much of the country. The fishermen of Gangfu had better get used to choppy waters.

This article originally appeared in the October 11, 2010 issue of Time Asia magazine.

Read “Behind the Sea Spat Between the U.S. and China.”

See pictures of China at 60.

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