Country Water Boundaries and Their Fate In South East Asia
By Bernard Healy-Garcia
Good fences make good neighbors. Or so I was told. The establishment of protected waters, established by the United Nations for trade and defense purposes, is coming to a boiling point in South Asia.
For the first time since World War II, Japan has announced plans to expand its military expenditures. At the same time, riots are taking place in Vietnam against Chinese-owned factories due to China conducting oil drilling, and the Philippine Government has accused China of claiming disputed islands to create a military airstrip.
Japan is preparing to defend itself against the increasing intrusion of China in international waters. Japan, by militarizing itself, is protecting its interests and looking to balance out the regional hegemon in East Asia. Unfortunately for South East Asia, as China continues to grow economically, politically and militarily, its sphere of influence will as well. Consequentially, Japan is forced to change the role of its military for the first time since WWII.
Japanese officials have stated that the reason to further militarize itself is to protect allies, and to come to their aid in case of attack. Currently, the Japanese Constitution is considered “pacifist” because the military may only be used to defend the Japanese mainland. The Japanese military cannot come to the aid of an ally under attack under any circumstances, with the exception that it is a direct threat to Japan. The increase in military expenditure is supported by the United States, Japan’s main ally, but highly contested by China, South Korea, and even many in Japan.
As Japan takes action, so to does Vietnam. Vietnamese civilians are currently rioting and attacking Chinese businesses and citizens in retaliation for China’s infringement on international barriers. These riots are aimed at China predominantly, but some other businesses from Taiwan and Singapore have been caught in the dispute as well.
Meanwhile, there is also increasing anti-Chinese sentiment in the Philippines. The Philippine Government has filed a legal claim in a U.N. tribunal to resolve a territorial dispute regarding an atoll that is being reclaimed by China. The atoll is 700 miles away from the southernmost island of China. The Philippine Government claims that there is construction on the atoll to have an airstrip for Chinese airspace, and that this construction could increase China’s air space and trade barriers extensively.
The three respective situations in Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines have something in common: a power struggle with China. Vietnam and the Philippines, unlike Japan and China, do not have strong militaries, but are attempting to resist China’s continued bullying and expansion of power and influence in the South China Sea.
Unfortunately, it is this absence of a powerful military in both of these countries that is causing this conflict to be at a standstill. Without a strong military to protect sovereignty against China, China will continue to encroach. Furthermore, the U.N. is unlikely to be of any help in this situation because even if tensions increase to the point of outside intervention, China will veto a Security Council resolution because of its status as a permanent member. Essentially then, China has a lock for this situation.
Japan’s major ally, the United States, has said that it supports Japan’s plan to increase its military role. The U.S. knows that the use of soft power to maintain itself as the sole super power is crucial based on its experience from the Cold War. Soft power is the idea that non-aggressive measures, such as the strategic placement of military presence, are better methods at deterring conflict.
Ultimately, the U.S. and its allies must force the Chinese government to abide by international law if it continues to intrude upon geographical barriers. Even if the United Nations tribunal rules against China, it will be difficult for the ruling to be enforced.
The U.S. and its allies must force China to abide by the ruling to uphold the integrity of the U.N. and international law. With the growing presence of U.S. military bases in the Philippines, the enforcement is a real tool that should be used if the tribunal ruling is to be enforced. The South China Sea is calm, but it always is before the storm.