Welcome to the first post of the Pacific Theater, a new recurring segment regarding the geopolitical events currently unfolding between the nations of the Pacific region. I’ve decided to take a distinct look at this region for a couple of important reasons. Firstly, the 3 largest economies in the world: the US, China, and Japan; are all located in this region. Although many people might not consider America as a Pacific nation, its influence and power extends deeply into this corner of the globe. Even though all three nations have strong economic ties with one another, they each have different geopolitical ambitions. Secondly, ever since the debate regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands began between China and Japan over a year ago (which I will discuss soon), the tensions between the countries in this region have been increasing at a gradual pace. Thus, it’ll be very interesting to see how events unfold in this part of the world. Before we get into the latest news however, let me give you a brief history lesson.
Relations between Pacific nations have always been uneasy and the history of the region has been riddled with tension and conflict; so much that it would put Brazilian soap operas to shame. To get a better understanding of the region, it is crucial to learn more about 3 significant historical events.
1) Japanese Incursions and Hostilities – Japan had been an empire from 1889 to 1945 when it was defeated in World War 2. As you can see from the map below, during World War 2, Japan invaded pretty much all of the its east Asian neighbors. It was especially brutal in its invasion of China where just in Nanking, Japanese soldiers killed somewhere between 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians. However, that was not Japan’s only show of hostility to its Pacific neighbors. In fact throughout its history, Japan had been at war with its neighbors, especially China and Korea, many times. I think you’re starting to see a pattern here. Japan is pretty much the Germany of the Pacific and most Pacific nations are still upset at all the havoc and destruction that Japan has caused in the past. The fact that some government approved history books in Japan don’t recognize their country’s actions during World War 2 and that the Japanese government has yet to properly apologize for those acts does not help their reputation at all. Thus, there is still unease between Japan and other Pacific nations that stem from the past.
2) The Korean “War” – The Korean War was fought from 1950 to 1953 between the Communist nations of North Korea and China versus South Korea and the United Nations. The official war resulted in stalemate which led to the current borders of Korea. However, the two sides are still unofficially at war. North Korea is still a closed totalitarian dictatorship led by the ever handsome and charismatic Kim Jong-Un who promises every now and again to rain a fiery death upon South Korea and the United States.
The only thing stopping a war between the two sides is the fact that the United States and South Korea are strong allies and the US has pledged to support South Korea against any possible force of hostility by North Korea. However, North Korea’s only ally and trading partner in the region is China, creating an even additional layer of awkwardness in the Pacific.
3) Chinese Claim on Taiwan – The Chinese Civil War was fought from 1927 to 1950 between the Communists and the Nationalists. The war resulted in a victory for the Communists when the Nationalists where driven out of mainland China to the island of Taiwan in 1950. Since then Taiwan has become its own nation. However, it is still not recognized by China and many other nations. Both countries in fact claim to be the actual China. The (mainland) Chinese have always had their eyes set on retaking Taiwan by force. However, just like in Korea, because Taiwan is a liberalized democracy, it is an ally of the United States. Thus, any war against Taiwan would also drag the United States into it as well. Now you might get a better sense of why I believe that the United States is one of the crucial Pacific nations. No major event or war can take place in the region without the United States’ involvement.
There is an island chain located between China, Japan and Taiwan called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Even though the islands were first discovered by the Japanese, throughout the history, these islands have been continuously disputed between China and Japan. The area surrounding the islands is rich in fishing areas and possibly oil. Up until recently, the islands had a private owner. However, on April 2012, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara announced that he would use public funds to buy the islands. Of course the Chinese were outraged and a nationalist anti-Japanese sentiment started to develop within China. Some Chinese nationalists even called on a boycott of Japanese goods and tried to slander Japanese products. The Chinese government saw this as a provocation and set out to undermine Japan’s control of the islands through incursions of surveillance vessels and patrol aircraft; to which Japan responded by scrambling fighter jets. Recently an unmanned Chinese drone flew over the islands. When Japan threatened to shoot down the next one, a Chinese general said that would be an act of war.
I told you this was just like a Brazilian soap opera.
Fast forward to November 23rd of 2013, when, in effort to retaliate against the Japanese and further increase its military influence on the global stage, China declared a large portion of the East China Sea to be part of its “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ). According to Chinese officials, all aircraft that intend to enter the zone must file flight plans with the Chinese authorities and maintain communications with Chinese controllers or face “defensive emergency measures”. The map below displays the area that China claims as its ADIZ.
As you can see, the AIDZ clearly includes the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The area also runs awfully close to Taiwanese and South Korean territories, causing these two nations to be spooked as well.
In an act of defiance, just 3 days after the Chinese introduced the ADIZ, the United States flew two B-52 bombers over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands within the ADIZ. Suddenly, the United States had entered into the fray to protect the freedom of movement and to curb Chinese ambitions. Then, earlier in December, US Vice President Joe Biden traveled to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and told him that the United States does not recognize the Chinese ADIZ. However, the Chinese did not seem to budge. On a side note, it is so assuring to know that the negotiations to defuse tensions among the world’s most powerful nations are being handled by a man renowned for his gaffes. If you have 5-6 minutes to kill for a good laugh, enjoy Biden’s gaffe reel.
Response to the ADIZ by other Pacific nations have also been in a militaristic manner. On December 8th, to respond to the Chinese ADIZ, South Korea declared its own ADIZ. Just like the Chinese ADIZ covers disputed territories with Japan, the South Korean ADIZ covered disputed territories with China. Similarly, Japan announced this Tuesday that it would invest 24.7 trillion yen ($240 billion) over the next 5 years on purchases of stealth fighters, submarines and drones. Japan’s military has been pacifistic and almost non-existent since World War 2. However, recently elected hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated that he wants to normalize the military of Japan. In recent years, China’s increase in defense spending has been in double digits, and as China starts throwing its weight around both economically and militarily, it won’t be a surprise to see neighboring countries strengthen their military and territorial claims as well.
On the positive side, most of these nations are crucial trading partners. So any type of direct military conflict would hurt everyone involved. Thus, the chance of an actual war is quite slim. Nevertheless, it will be very interesting to see the next step in the chess match between these Pacific powers. Stay tuned for more.
“The vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States. We welcome a constructive role by the United States in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region. We also hope that the United States will fully respect and accommodate the major interests and legitimate concerns of Asia-Pacific countries.”