Running on Fumes

Bill Rice at Dawn's Early Light recently considered Sino-Japanese energy geopolitics. While the disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are well-known, less well-known but, as Bill points out, equally contentious, are the disputes over gas fields in the East China Sea:

What is at stake is over 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves. China already has developed stations at Chunxiao (Shirakaba), Duanqiao (Kusunoki) and Tianwaitian (Kashi) that are starting this month to produce natural gas. Japan had floated a proposal to jointly develop the sites, but only after China agreeing to stop drilling and submit to Japan its internal surveys of where the natural gas is coming from (See the Asia Times Online file for an in depth analysis).

According to the CIA, tensions in the Spratlys have recently eased somewhat:

[C]laimants in November 2002 signed the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," which has eased tensions but falls short of a legally binding "code of conduct"; in March 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to conduct marine seismic activities in the Spratlys[.]

As The Economist notes, China's energy demands have been growing by leaps and bounds, compelling the Communist Party to invest in schemes to stabilize energy resources. Among the sources of energy (other than coal, of which China has plenty in the Northeast, and nuclear, which China is not yet ready to deploy outside of the military) are:

  • Oil from Iran
  • Gas from Russia and Central Asia
  • Oil shipments from Arabia via Southeast Asia
  • Oil and gas from the South China Sea
  • Gas from the East China Sea

In her endeavors to secure these sources, China has been ruthlessly pragmatic, much as the United States was (rightfully) allged to have been during the Cold War. Iran may be willing to work with China as former members of the Non-Aligned Bloc, but problems manifest themselves in the clash between China's atheism and intolerance of Islamic dissent and Iranian support for Islamic fundamentalism. Russia has not been forthcoming with building projects due to economic and political problems, and its largest supplier of gas, Gazprom, does business primarily with the West. With both Russia and Iran, Central Asia must be taken into account; the current US military presence removes some of China's free rein.

Oil shipments through Southeast Asia (particularly Singapore, with the region's most effective indigenous military, including a Navy that jealously guards the city-state's role in policing the Straits of Malacca) are reliable, but many of the actors are either friendly to the United States or neutral. (Fittingly, Singapore, while a staunch ally of the United States, shows her pragmatic streak in nevertheless courting the Chinese mandarins.) Moreover, the presence of the US Seventh Fleet, and its enormous reach, remain considerable factors in any calculus of power in the Western Pacific.

This leaves China with two areas where she can strut all 800 pounds of her gorilla presence: The Spratlys, where the nearby neighbors are relatively weak militarily (although Vietnam fought China more or less to a draw in 1979); and the East China Sea, where the main rivals are Japan and the United States.

Strategically, it would seem to make sense for China to coordinate with other actors interested in the Spratlys, and then leverage the goodwill against Japan through stoking fears of a resurgent Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It is worth noting that every single Spratlys actor had been attacked and/or occupied, at least in part, by Imperial Japanese forces. (Taiwan was never attacked, as it was handed over to Japan following the Sino-Japanese War in the Treaty of Shimonoseki.) Thus China hopes to convert energy that might otherwise have been directed against her into a resource with which to compete with Japan.

But it would appear that Japan is getting tired of being pushed around by a strident and growing China. The 1991 book The Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals was originally meant as a backlash against the United States. In the intervening decade or so, however, Japan's economy has struggled to bounce back, while China has charged ahead like a bull in a, well, china shop. It is no surprise, then, that the Japanese public returned Junichiro Koizumi (?????) and his Liberal Democratic Party (?????) to power in the general election of 2005, in which Koizumi's approach to foreign policy (he advocated a more self-confident Japan, a popular stance irrespective of his support for President Bush's Middle East policy) was an important factor. (Note, however, that an LDP win in Japan is about as surprising as a PRI win in Mexico.)

Meanwhile, China predictably assailed any semblance of popular choice, finding in particular a cause for excoriation in visits paid by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine (????), where Japanese war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals from the Pacific War are buried. Reasonable people can argue over the propriety of such visits, but in light of practices elsewhere, such as the existence of a Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery here in the United States, Japanese practices can hardly be considered such as would dignify the sort of hysteria the People's Republic routinely goes through.

The Chinese Communist Party, for lack of a better way to vent popular restlessness and rationale for demonizing Japan, are picking at an historical wound and refusing to let it heal. Without an inspiring raison d'ĂȘtre, their antics seem to indicate that they are running on fumes, as indeed all of China may be if they cannot come to an amicable resolution for cooperation in the East China Sea.

Note: For further reading, see:

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds and Naruwan Formosa]

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