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Domestic politics fuel maritime disputes in East Asia

The recent intensification of the dispute between China and Vietnam has highlighted the volatile and unpredictable nature of maritime disputes in East Asia. Despite the prevalence of nationalist sentiments, historical grievances and geopolitical interests, it is domestic politics that render these disputes more complicated, unpredictable and dangerous.
Andy Yee
5 July 2011

Mark Valencia, Hawaii-based expert on maritime disputes in East Asia, said in a recent interview with the New York Times that incidents involving China and other claimants have increased. ‘But why now - that’s the $64,000 question.’ Apart from the disputes between China and ASEAN nations in the South China Sea, the same question could be asked about the increasing confrontation over uninhabited islands between Japan and Russia, and China and Japan since the second half of 2010. It is true that nationalist feelings based on historical grievances, geopolitical interests and the possibility of large oil and gas finds are the fundamental reasons behind maritime disputes in Asia. However, domestic political reasons also feature as important triggering factor in all cases.

Internally, the Vietnamese communist government is facing political challenges. In early May, Vietnam saw a rare outbreak of unrest in the northwest Dien Bien province, with mass protests of the ethnic Hmong people calling for more autonomy, land rights and religious freedom. In May, the country’s inflation reached its highest level, at 19.78%, in nearly two and a half years, one of the highest rates in the world. Inflation, corruption and the government’s incompetent economic policy are at the top of people’s concerns.

In late May, elections to the National Assembly of Vietnam were held. The parliament is expected to elect a new government in July. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is widely believed to retain his post, although he faced the first-ever vote of no confidence from a delegate last year. While the Communist Party won by a landslide under a constitutional mandate of power, 15 out of 182 candidates nominated by central government and party organs were not elected, double the usual number in past elections. In addition, more self-nominated candidates were elected than ever before.

It is apparent that Vietnam is taking the initiative to escalate the dispute with China. After accusing Beijing of cutting the cable of its oil exploration ship operating in the region, it held live-fire drills and called for US support. It is true that the US signalled a stake in the South China Sea last July, hence internationalising the dispute, to China’s dismal. However, a grand bargaining may be currently at play between China and the US. This month, China has embarked on a more cooperative approach in the Libyan crisis, establishing first contacts with rebel groups. On the eve of the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this month, Chinese President Hu Jintao also urged Iran to open dialogue with Western nations. In return, US reactions to the dispute in the South China Sea have so far been rather cautious. If Vietnam chooses to escalate the disagreement even in this unfavourable context, this suggests other considerations are at work. Amid deteriorating economic conditions and looming elections, perpetuating the dispute with China could foster nationalist feelings and provide a welcoming distraction from domestic problems.

A similar dispute is currently ongoing between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. The disagreement, dating back to the end of World War II, has not been a major diplomatic issue between the two countries so far. In the 1990s, a compromise seemed within reach. However, relations deteriorated after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev became the first ever Soviet/Russian leader to set foot on the disputed islands in October 2010, pledging major investments in the local economy.

This, again, can be traced to changes in the domestic situation in Russia. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, cash-strapped Russia was eagerly looking for Japanese investment, technology and partnership in energy projects in the region. Russian politicians saw concrete financial benefits in reaching a compromise with Japan. In 1998, Japan and the IMF promised a $1.5 billion aid package to Russia, and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi visited Moscow to try to negotiate a deal with his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin.

Today, with Russian finances much improved thanks to energy exports, Japanese investment is no longer as sought after as before. With the Russian presidential election scheduled for 2012, Dmitry Medvedev’s visit might have been motivated by an intention to appeal to nationalist sentiment and fears over Russian security in the Far East, prevalent in the right-wing and conservative fractions of the electorate and the military. Of particular concern are the dismal state of the Far Eastern military command and the demographic crisis in the Russian Far East. Of course, the timing of the visit might have also been influenced by the escalation of the concurrent Sino-Japanese conflict - Medvedev announced his visit to the Kuril Islands on 29 September 2010, only a few days after a summit with China in Beijing.

Similarly, the escalation of a dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands between China and Japan in the fall of 2010, which started with the detention of a Chinese captain by Japanese authorities in disputed waters, was the result of a dynamic interaction between two highly charged domestic political arenas. The dispute came at a time when Sino-Japanese relations were improving under the China-friendly policy of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which came to power in August 2009. In past incidents between the two countries over disputed territories, it has not been usual practice for either side to make arrests.

It transpired that the first move made by Japan in the dispute was the result of political entrepreneurship on part of then-Coast Guard Minister Seiji Maehara. The arrest, made on 8 September, was disregarded by the Prime Minister due to an upcoming party leadership race on 14 September. Following the victory of the incumbent Naoto Kan over Ichiro Ozawa, Maehara was promoted to Foreign Minister on 17 September as a reward for his support of Kan’s reelection bid. On 19 September, Japan decided to prolong the detention of the Chinese captain by another ten days.  Further escalating attacks on China by Maehara followed, which described Chinese reactions as “hysterical”, generating a downward spiral in terms of reciprocal diplomatic and economic actions on both sides. In retrospect, the initial arrest was caused by the political entrepreneurship of Maehara, who might be trying to build up a nationalist image in an attempt to succeed Prime Minister Kan. But once the confrontation with China started, there was little diplomatic flexibility with which Japan could retreat.

China, too, is affected by domestic issues in dealing with maritime disputes. Since the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, socialism has been replaced by nationalism as the ideological mainstay. But with increasingly restive situations in the periphery (Tibetan riots in 2008, Urumqi riots in 2009, and Inner Mongolia protests in 2011), nascent democracy movements in Hong Kong (which the Central Government distrusts), and the fact that the grand project of unification with Taiwan is far from completion, Beijing needs to show that it is in control of the national destiny. And even though China is governed by an authoritarian government, it too could not take a blind eye to the strong bottom-up pressures and changes in public opinion. In this context, China simply found itself in a position where it could not take the more pragmatic approach of negotiations and compromise when dealing with these long-standing disputes, especially since they were provoked by neighbouring states and touched upon the sentiments of national historical grievances (mainly with regards to Japan).

This is not to say that grand strategic balances are not important in analysing these maritime disputes. Power relations between the main regional powers of China, Japan and Russia, and the engagement of the US as an offshore balancer are important considerations. Conducting a thorough analysis would be much simpler if these disputes were only about strategic balances. But they are not. Domestic politics are a powerful factor which goes a long way in answering the ‘$64,000 question’. But domestic politics run in different cycles in different countries, which could make the occurrence of clashes seem volatile. This sends a pessimistic signal regarding the prospect of resolution. But it also means that a confluence of favourable domestic situations is possible. The best hope for the region, therefore, is to continue to strengthen regional multilateral security institutions, which at present function merely as ‘talk-shops’ at best. Only with strong institutions can the region seize the next opportunity, when domestic conditions are favourable in each country, to reach a resolution. 

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