Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


If the US plays by the Rules, China might too
The Times - September 24th 2012

“How courteous is the Japanese,” ran Ogden Nash’s poem from the 1930s, “he always says ‘Excuse it please.’ He climbs into his neighbor’s garden, and smiles and says ‘I beg your pardon’. He bows and grins a friendly grin, and calls his hungry family in; he grins and bows a friendly bow, ‘So sorry, this my garden now.” Citing that poem will no doubt have irked many Japanese readers, and we are anyway thankfully well beyond the imperial era when countries such as Britain and Japan were in the habit of taking over neighbours’ gardens. 

But it is what is still in the minds of those Chinese who are protesting in the streets about Japan’s continued ownership of some rocks in the East China Sea into which it first moved in 1895. And, let’s be honest, it is what many of us in the West think now of the Chinese: as actual or potential grabbers of territory. Since the 1950s, they haven’t been. But what the East China Sea dispute shows, along with rows during the past year with the Philippines and Vietnam about disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, is that China has become increasingly assertive about its historical territorial claims, especially out at sea. And its rival disputants are equally implacable. 

The result is that these seemingly minor spats pose a substantial risk of confrontation and even conflict. China has sent a small fleet of marine surveillance ships to strut their stuff around the East China Sea islands (which lie between Taiwan and Okinawa, and are called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyu by China), while its state media have spoken threateningly of 1,000 Chinese fishing boats heading for the area. With Japanese coastguard vessels, which rather resemble naval warships, also patrolling around the islands, the chance of an accident or miscalculation is high. And if that were to happen, it would embroil America too, for under the terms of the US-Japan security treaty, America is obliged to help defend Japanese territory. 

America always points out that it does not take sides in sovereignty disputes, but given the treaty, and given the fact that it was America that handed the Senkakus back to Japan in 1971 along with Okinawa rather than passing them to Taiwan, it cannot really stand aside. Compared with the civil war in Syria, or with fears of an Iranian atom bomb or an Israeli pre-emptive attack, this can all look somewhat tame and far-fetched. But the territorial disputes should be taken very seriously because they are among the few issues that threaten to pit America and China against each other in more than merely trade frictions or presidential campaign rhetoric. Moreover, it reflects a wider problem posed by the rise of China. 

That problem is, of course, first and foremost a generic one: when new great powers rise, they inevitably expect and demand a bigger regional or global role, and that space be made for them in various ways. That process occurred when Germany and Japan grew more powerful and ambitious in the late 19th century, and we know what that resulted in. At least we have that experience to learn from in China’s case. It is also, however, a problem that has, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, some special Chinese characteristics. Those are the secretive and utterly untransparent nature of decision-making in the Chinese Communist Party and its organs of government, and the seemingly rigid belief that no compromises can ever be made over either China’s strategic interests or its historical sense of itself as the leading power of Asia. 

The lack of transparency has been, as it were, on open display in recent months. A new leadership is due to take over in China at an imminent party congress the dates for which have not yet been revealed. The expected new president, Xi Jinping, disappeared from public view for two weeks, prompting feverish speculation about power struggles and the like, made plausible by the defenestration earlier this year of the bumptious party chief from Chonqing, Bo Xilai, in connection with the mysterious murder of the British businessman, Neil Heywood. He may just have had a bad cold. 

Such a political system is hard to negotiate with. Perhaps that is what the Chinese like, since they anyway take a tough stance. But not on everything. Over the past two decades, China has settled land border disputes through compromises with all of its neighbours bar one: India, which it sees as one of its long-term, strategic rivals. It has not settled any territorial disputes out at sea. Why not? The reason is not, as many think, hunger for oil and gas or other undersea resources. Such considerations could apply to land borders too, but they haven’t stood in the way of compromise. In 2008, China and Japan reached an agreement on joint development of oil and gas under their disputed waters in the East China Sea. That deal has, however, been still-born. The explanation lies in nationalistic stubbornness, perhaps, but also strategic interests. 

China is implacable about territorial disputes out at sea because it sees control over the seas around its vast coastline as vital for its own security and, yes, for its future ability to project its power more widely. Knowing that, other regional powers, most notably Japan, are also going to remain implacable, because they see Chinese maritime control as a threat to them. And America does not want China to have that control, because it would constrain the American navy too. It is a bleak picture: unmoveable strategic interests being exerted by an inscrutable political system, confronting other countries that also feel unable to budge. In such circumstances, the only solution is the one semi-adopted by America and Britain after 1945: the establishment and mobilization of an international rule of law and international institutions, to provide means for the mediation and defusing of these disputes. China has, in many fields, professed its own faith in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. 

So a resort to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and of other international judicial processes, ought to provide the solution. There is one snag. The Law of the Sea convention was agreed in 1982, but the American Congress has still not ratified it—thus rather undermining any effort to get the Chinese to abide by it. 

Rules for others, but not for us: that has been the American postwar tradition. It has to change, if China’s rise is to be managed peacefully, without naval collisions far out to sea.


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