The number of disputes has risen over the decades in the region known for dynamic economy, competition, rich waters, possible big oil and gas reserves, important international roads, global trade flows, distrust, inability to define territory boundaries and lack of share of information between countries. Various actions, including harassing vessels, blockading islets and shoals and destroying equipment have increased diplomatic tensions.
Many unresolved territorial disputes till this day exists. From the map below we can see that almost all countries in this part of Asia have some unresolved maritime or other long lasting territorial dispute waiting for salvation.
Conflicts in the South and East China’s sea
Source: Thomas Wright’s “Outlaw of the Sea” in Foreign Affairs.
Resources are important drivers of competition in this area. The sea is deep and no official records of oil and natural gas, so far only assumptions exist for the area has not been entirely researched yet but it has great potential. In the rising importance of energy and its price, desire to control this area is also rising. Estimates of reserves differ and reach up to 213 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which is in oil reserves 10 times the proven US reserves and with natural gas equal to Qatar reserves. Another reason and source of conflict are also fishery resources. All coastal countries have developed fishing industry and with fishing in the disputes waters different incidents such as harassment, confiscation of catches and equipment and also imprisonment of fisherman happen. Many of these areas are being patrolled by coastal guard and local maritime agencies. Another reason for rising tensions has been pointed out and that is China’s rise and evolving regional dynamic. With growing capabilities, globalization and rising economic capabilities is China more and more dependent on other countries to trade and that’s why open access and water corridors to China represents great importance. China’s growing military budget also poses some concerns to other countries in the region. Also growing nationalism has been seen in Asia.
To understand the basis of the conflicts one needs to look way back into the history, international laws, agreements and conventions and last but not least every country’s interpretation for every single conflict alone.
China Sea Territory Disputes
Source: Money Morning staff research.
Spartly islands and Paracel islands are lying in the South China Sea, where the People’s Republic of China makes extensive claims so called “nine-dash line” (claims almost 90% of areas of the South China Sea) seen also on the map above. Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have claims over some part of mentioned territories. China and Vietnam claim they have historic rights. Philippines on the other hand, invoke its geographical proximity. Malaysia and Brunei (does not claim any of the disputed islands) claims of territory have a background in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and their economic exclusive zones. Bigger disputes exist in the South as they do in the East, where have we seen also more escalations and tensions in recent times.
In the East China Sea, China, Japan, and Taiwan each claim a Japan-administered island that Japan calls the Senkakus, China the Diaoyu Islands, and Taiwan the Diaoyutai Islands. The BBC has reported of the importance of the islands in its rich fishery grounds, potential oil and gas reserves, strategic positions and rising competition between the United States and primacy for military primacy in Asia-Pacific region. The dispute over inhabited land began escalating after the United Nations Law of Sea codified access to maritime resources based on control of nearby land features.
The Scarborough Shoal is claimed by China and Taiwan. China defines territory as it’s one based on the line that no other country recognizes. The Philippines filed the case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 but China has refused to take part in the process. Even successful pursue at the United Nation tribunal will not make China obliging by the ruling. This could also have a negative impact in a case of Philippines failure because it will be less likely that other countries in the region that have similar disputes will turn to international institution to resolve their disagreements. Another two disputed in the region are among others The Macclesfield Bank which is claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines and Pratas islands that are claimed by China and Taiwan.
Council of the Foreign Relations has suggested some preemptive potential measures should be made: resource sharing, military – to- military communication, bilateral management of the disputes, dispute resolution mechanisms with third party get involved, International court of justice and international arbitration. Peace and stability should be guaranteed also by ASEAN, which plays an important role in this region. The question lingers is Asia pacific diplomacy going to be able to settle the disputes in Asia-Pacific region?
The 3rd Trans-Himalaya Forum UN for Ecological Civilization and Environmental Protection
Despite the world is passing through a very tense and hostile geopolitical environment, yet, in a significant diplomatic development, Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani is set to attend the 3rd Trans-Himalaya Forum for International Cooperation in Nyingchi, Tibet, from October 4-5, 2023. This visit comes at the special invitation of China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, underlining the mutual commitment of nations in fostering regional cooperation.
Historical Background and Importance:
Tibet is also known the roof top of the world, it is one of the oldest civilization, and may be the most important part of the world, especially for this entire region. It is the source of water for whole region, most of the rivers originates from it. It biodiversity is crucial for the entire region. The Trans-Himalaya Forum, initiated in 2018, stands as a testament to the collaborative spirit among regional countries. It aims to deepen practical cooperation on vital issues such as geographical connectivity, environmental protection, ecological preservation, and cultural exchanges. The last in-person meeting, held in 2019, facilitated invaluable discussions that paved the way for shared understanding and strategic collaborations.
China views the Trans-Himalaya Forum as a platform that embodies the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation. The forum aligns with China’s commitment to ecological civilization and environmental protection, central tenets of its development agenda. China values it friends and Pakistan is closet of its neighbor, friend and stakeholder in the region. By inviting esteemed diplomats like Foreign Minister Jilani, China underscores its commitment to fostering international partnerships and building a sustainable future together. China is committed to work with the rest of world in all domains and especially with its close friends and allies. Chinese initiatives like Global Security, Global Developments, and Community of shared futures are in line with the same spirit. China believes in multilateralism, and openness, while oppose hegemonic approach and protectionism.
Importance of the Forum:
This year’s theme, “Ecological Civilization and Environmental Protection,” reflects the urgency of addressing environmental challenges collectively. The Forum serves as a crucial avenue for nations to exchange ideas, best practices, and innovative solutions. It not only enhances regional cooperation but also fosters a deeper understanding of the diverse cultures that make up the Trans-Himalayan region. Currently the world is facing severe challenges on clash of civilization and environmental fronts. China being a responsible nation is well aware of such challenges and its consequences, that is why, it is struggling to prevent any major disaster. It has been putting all efforts to resolve the common issues and problems faced by humankind. It is open to all nations in a positive manner to collaborate to resolve the serious concerns. This forum will be a right stem in the right direction.
The Forum is anticipated to yield fruitful outcomes. Bilateral meetings, including those with the Deputy Prime Minister of Mongolia, the Foreign Minister of China, and the Interim Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, are expected to foster stronger ties and collaborative initiatives. Additionally, the collective discussions are likely to result in joint projects, resource sharing, and policy frameworks aimed at environmental conservation and sustainable development.
The Way Forward:
Looking ahead, the Trans-Himalaya Forum will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the region. By embracing the Chinese perspective, nations can harness the collective wisdom of diverse cultures and work towards a harmonious and prosperous Trans-Himalayan region. As nations engage in collaborative efforts, this forum exemplifies the power of unity and shared goals, paving the way for a greener, more sustainable future for all. The beneficiaries will be all stakeholders in the region and will also contribute to global peace, development and harmony.
Pakistan is always playing positive role in geopolitics and will be important member of the global community in resolving immediate concerns. As a matter of policy, Pakistan has been contributing toward resolving issues and overcoming challenges. Pakistan is always a partner in any positive developments leading toward security, peace and developments. The UN always appreciated its role in UN peace keeping mission.
Reading the Rise of China
Unlike in the past, when the geopolitical discourse worldwide was going through a massive geopolitical metamorphosis in the first half of the 20th century, as the fall of empires were accompanied by the rise of democracy, republics, socialist and communist dictatorship. Meanwhile, it resulted in the rise of the US and USSR as two superpowers at the end of the second world war, and such a geopolitical metamorphosis situation is evident with China’s rise, whose rise under Xi Jinping’s leadership has countered the US and its global order and supremacy. Since its independence, China has come a long way from being a poverty-ridden, low-income group nation to now the second-largest economy in the world.
To address its economic crisis after the demise of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 “reform and opening up” pushed China to emphasize the four-modernization areas to develop itself as a prosperous country. As the reform emphasized the modernization of agriculture, industry, emphasis on science and technology and securing national defense, it also resulted in China being viewed as a strategic threat to the West in the later years. Furthermore, it resulted in the beginning of a debate over whether the rise of China is peaceful or not? China, since the 1990s, has adopted, basically, what we called the “charm offensive” and employed it to win over its neighboring and regional states, where China uses persuasion opposite to threat as a mode. It was done along with diplomacy, trade, investment, engage in cooperative regionalism, strengthening cultural relationships, offering aid, and acted as a responsible nation in resolving regional and global disputes.
The concept of peaceful rise or “hepingjueqi” was first used by Zheng Bijian in 2003 and was adopted by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in December 2003 as a Chinese expression to reflect country’s growth and its status as a global power from a less threatening perspective. Growing concern over the concept resulted in the adoption of peaceful development; as a result, in 2005, a white paper on China’s Peaceful Development Road was issued; it sees peaceful development for the country’s modernization as inevitable one because it will promote global peace and development. As the paper seeks a mutual benefit and common development, thus building a harmonious world altogether, which was later reiterated in the 2011 White Paper “China Peaceful Development”. With repetition of the word peace and common development, the basic content of the peaceful rise was kept while its outer look was refined as the term ‘rise’ gave way to ‘road’, which will ensure accessibility to ‘development’ and not domination. It remains the base to project China’s rise to the world since the arrival of President Xi Jinping in 2012, which transformed China’s rise to be assertive and aggressive. However, Xi’s economic infrastructure (the BRI and Made in China 2025) and financial institutions developed (AIIB and National Development Bank) carried out since 2013 to sustain the Chinese economy and economic growth raises one relevant question, i.e., ‘will China face the ‘Soviet’s fate and how so far it avoided an economic collapse’? Explanation of such question will lay a base to understand the need for Xi’s vision for China and the Chinese Dream and its development so far impacted the world order established since the collapse of the USSR.
Today, China’s aggressive behavior worldwide isn’t only supported by its strong and vibrant export-led economic growth and Xi’s leadership; it also highlights the need to discuss diminutively how China’s rigor to learn from the Soviet’s mistakes continued to help China to expand its strategic hegemony. China took a cue from the USSR’s shortcomings and the mistakes it committed during the Cold War range from economic to military aspects to protect itself from committing the same mistakes. However, whether it was Soviet’s the Glasnost or Perestroika, which opened the country to the western lifestyle and freedom of thought and expression, weakened the Soviet’s central authority as Chinese leaders considered through ethnonationalism and political unrest in the country. Unlike the Soviets, China enjoys a large homogenous society and further addresses its periphery which includes Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, which are under CCP’s tight control to counter any Colour Revolution. Further, since the 1979 Vietnam War, as China argues, it has never engaged in any proxy warfare and instead invested its resources to couple its economies with other economies. Although, today, it created uneasiness for other countries to contain China’s rise and geopolitical ambition.
Meanwhile, as China hid its geopolitical ambition, it further transformed itself into a global manufacturing hub. As Soviet mistakes continued to reflect in the CCP research work to avoid the Glasnost moment, Watch the Periphery and further embraced Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics. President Xi Jinping, in his speech to party officials in 2013, reiterated apart from maintaining ideological control and upholding the Marxist-Leninist principle, ’a great power fall when central authority losses power and respect which will only help China to avoid Soviet Union’s mistakes. In such regard, to control the flow of information and restrain free speech, the party maintained control over the digital and non-digital platforms and didn’t allow Facebook, Google Services, The New York Times, Twitter, Washington Post, and others to work which established what called the ‘Great Firewall of China’. Such surveillance of the Chinese internet put Chinese people under steady surveillance as China uses the Deep Pocket Inspection, which allows Chinese intelligence agencies to keep an eye on Chinese people and censor information and Chinese lives establishing China as Digital Authoritarian who exports its model to other countries which become a serious issue today.
Under such circumstances and growing issue of human right issue in Xinjiang and the CCP is working towards suppressing democracy in Hong Kong and changing the demography of Tibet. Further, the intent to unify Taiwan with China, coupled with slowing of the Chinese economy due to its Zero-Covid policy, questions CCP rule and asks when will China and the CCP collapse? To contradict such scrutiny, China argues West always view China at the cusp of crisis and will experience a hard landing ending CCP rule and COVID as China’s Chernobyl moment. In recent times whenever China faces or encountered any challenges like unfounded rumor of a coup in China and Xi Jinping’s sudden departure from the Shanghai Cooperation Summit (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, 15-16 September 2022 or the ongoing property crisis like the Evergrande, China argues pushes the West to create wild prophecies concerning the fate of the CCP and China.
However, Zhang Weiwei, Director of the China Institute of Fudan University, argues most of the predictions made by the West failed as they failed to predict the fall of the Soviets or the rise of China, and the rise of Trumpism and the 2008 financial crisis. He states West’s predictions reflect ideological biasedness towards no-western countries, like how they will be westernized and use their historical experience to analyse China’s future ignoring civilizational differences as they will end up concluding the wrong prediction. However, as China is facing economic and policy challenges with growing discontent among Chinese elites, Xi’s absence and other development following the SCO summit allowed the global Falun Gong movement – China banned it in 1999 – to spread anti-CCP and Xi’s discontent further. However, the possibility of a coup in China has been addressed by the party, and Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption movement with military coup remains implausible or considered the wishful thinking of the West; as such rumour reflects world is still unaware of China’s inner workings as Global Times argues none are even remotely right.
As Global Times argues, unlike how the West view China, under Xi Jinping and CCP leadership, China was able to achieve a faster economic growth rate and handled the Covid-19 pandemic well compared with the West who only exaggerate China’s problem and downplayed its growth and development reflecting having a wrong prediction of China. It further states China’s collapse perspective reflects in Francis Fukuyama, who, in 2012, argued that ‘China’s top-down political system will only blow up due to the pressure from a growing middle class who’re empowered by wealth and social network’. Meanwhile, Zhang Yiwu, Professor at the Peking University, states in China today, there are more than 1 billion people who are exposed to the internet, which still didn’t impact the CCP’s rule and authority; rather, Chinese used the medium to express their opinion on problems and warn the government to fix the problem and issues. Further, unlike other western scholars, Martin Jacquesargues with China continues to rise, support for its political system will increase, highlighting Chinese system worked which will strengthen in coming years as other countries will adopt it, which alarmed the West as it could lead to the ‘Sinification of the world’. To rebut the West’s China collapse theory, Chinese scholar like Yang Sheng argues instead of prophesizing China and CCP falls; the West should conduct poll using Pew and Ipsos, credible and authoritative institute. He states staying in the house and base your research on second-hand source data instead will only lead you away from the fact and fail to achieve a definite conclusion.
US- Japan- South Korea Military Cooperation Pushes More Rigid Bipolar Security Arrangement in Northeast Asia
The Russian-North Korean negotiations this month have provoked a lot of hype, particularly in the West. It is assumed by the West that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s trip might indicate a profound change in Moscow’s overall approach to the security problems on the Korean Peninsula. Allegedly, a new so-called “Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang axis” that harbors unquestionable hostile intentions toward the West is rapidly emerging in Northeast Asia. It is suggested that Moscow is now ready to directly assist North Korea with its nuclear and, especially, with its ballistic programs. Pyongyang, in its turn, might send large-scale military hardware supplies to Russia to serve the “special military operation” that Moscow has been conducting in Ukraine since February of 2022.
These allegations have to be addressed in a proper context. Speaking of various axes in Northeast Asia, one should not forget about the growing level of military cooperation between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. Both Japan and the South Korea have dramatically increased their defense spending as well as the scale of their trilateral interaction. In the end of 2022, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced an unprecedentedly ambitious five-year rearmament plan that should turn Japan into the nation with the third highest defense budget in the world after the US and China.
The changing posture of the South Korea is arguably even more significant. After all, Japan has always been a disciplined US geopolitical partner at least since signing the 1960 US-Japan security treaty. South Korea for a long time has consistently resisted pressure from the US to join Washington and Tokyo in a trilateral alliance or to drop its friendly ties with Beijing and Moscow. President Yoon Suk-yeol, who came to power in 2022, apparently has a different take on the South Korea’s security prospects. The traditional distancing from the US-Japan strategic partnership is no longer in place. The new leadership makes steps to bring Seoul closer to Quad and AUKUS. It even entertained the idea of South Korea obtaining indigenous nuclear weapons. On top of that, for at least last two years, both Japan and South Korea have been meticulously integrated into the new global strategy of the North Atlantic Alliance.
A devil’s advocate would argue that both Tokyo and Seoul have every reason to be concerned about security challenges mounting in Northeast Asia. Still, even giving both nations the benefit of the doubt, it is impossible to deny that the security and political “axis” in this region of the world is being built by the West rather than by the East. And, as Newton’s Third Law tells us, for every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. When one body acts on another, it experiences an equal and opposite reaction from the other body. Now, the question is not if a nuclear war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, North Korean Defense Minister General Kang Sun-nam stated in August, but who starts it and when.
Let’s be clear: Pyongyang is much more sensitive about its sovereignty and independence than both Tokyo and even Seoul. This means that North Korea will never become an obedient proxy in Russia’s or China’s capable hands. However, the growing US-Japanese-South Korean military cooperation inevitably leads to stronger China-Russia-North Korea ties. This, in turn, means that we are moving toward a more rigid bipolar security arrangement in Northeast Asia. Unfortunately, for the time being, all the dreams for a common security system in the region have to be put on hold.
Will this change affect Russia’s and China’s approaches to the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula? Neither Moscow nor Beijing is interested in a nuclear arms race there. Russia and China have little to gain and a lot to lose if the existing fragile consensus in the United Nations Security Council on North Korean nuclear program were to collapse. On the other hand, the new great powers confrontation can do nothing but erode the trust, which is indispensable for maintaining this consensus. There is still time to reverse these dangerous trends toward bipolarity in the region. Instead of lamenting about the actions of the other side, major actors should engage in inclusive consultations on how to defuse the situation.
Twenty years ago, the so called six-party talks on nuclear program were launched in Beijing. Over six years this multilateral format had its ups and downs, successes and failures. In April of 2009 this mechanism finally hit the wall. Though it is hardly possible to get back to where the region was 20 years ago, the spirit of the six-party talks remains the best hope for security solutions in the region of Northeast Asia.
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