Territorial disputes: APEC Summit calls for peaceful resolution, Sino-Japanese tensions rise

Updated On: Sep 11, 2012

China sends surveillance ships to disputed islands after Japanese purchase

The Chinese government has accused Japan of 'stealing' disputed islands in the East China Sea, hours after the Japanese government said that it has bought it from its private Japanese owners for about US$30 million.

In response, China has sent two maritime surveillance ships to the islands -- known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan -- to "assert its sovereignty", according to Xinhua news agency.

The developments have further ratcheted tensions between the two Asian countries.

Japanese officials said the purchase was aimed at preventing the conservative governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from buying them, which would have further elevated the dispute. Mr Ishihara said he would develop the islands, something the Japanese national government does not plan to do. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba repeated Japan's line that the purchase served "peaceful and stable maintenance of the islands".

Over the weekend, Chinese president Hu Jintao had cautioned Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda during the Asia-Pacific Ecnomic Cooperation summit that nationalising the islands would be illegal.

After the purchase, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said tuesday that it “cannot alter the fact the Japanese side stole the islands from China.” Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng further added that "the Chinese government and military are unwavering in their determination and will to defend national territorial sovereignty. We... reserve the power to adopt corresponding measures." He did not elaborate what further steps would follow.

The statements out of China prompted Mr Noda to put Japan's Self-Defence Forces on alert to handle any emergency, but no reference was made to China's warnings.

The US has warned the two countries against escalating the dispute, saying that tensions between the world's second and third-largest economies would have negative global impacts. US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called the region "the cockpit of the global economy", and that "the stakes could not be bigger and the desire is to have all leaders to keep that squarely in mind."

Report: China Accuses Japan of Stealing After Purchase of Group of Disputed Islands [New York Times, 11 Sep 2012]
Report: China sends ships to islands purchased by Japan [Channel NewsAsia, 11 Sep 2012]
Report: Japan buys disputed islands, China sends patrol ships [Reuters, 12 Sep 2012]
Report: China sends ships to islands claimed by Japan [TODAY, 12 Sep 2012]

APEC calls for peaceful resolution of disputes

The 24th APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Economic Leaders' Meeting between 8-9 December in the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok also addressed maritime territorial disputes in the region.

In recent months, China and the Philippines clashed over the issue of sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal.  China has also had disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and both Japan and South Korea have had disputes over the Dodko/Takeshima Islets.

Representing President Barack Obama at the APEC Summit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it would be best if a code of conduct could be established and institutionalised to enable the South China Sea disputes – involving China and various Southeast Asian countries – to be resolved peacefully.  

Regarding the Dokdo/Takeshima island territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea, the US sought to “remind both countries of the importance we [the US] place on their determination to work well together”.  With Japan and South Korea being long-time allies of the US in East Asia, it is only natural that the US would want to avoid any conflict in the region.
Discussing the territorial disputes in Asia in general, Mrs. Clinton stressed that tensions have to be reduced, and that diplomatic involvement from all parties have to be strengthened to address the issues.

In a bilateral meeting with Mrs. Clinton, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong similarly called for the South China Sea dispute to be resolved peacefully in the interest of regional stability and freedom of navigation in these vital sea lines of communication (SLOC).  PM Lee also emphasised that Singapore does not take sides in the territorial disputes.  In a meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, PM Lee also reiterated Singapore’s stance.

But during the APEC Summit, the Philippines and China failed to meet to discuss their ongoing dispute.  A meeting with President Hu Jintao was on Philippine President Aquino’s agenda but due to a clash of schedules, the two were unable to meet.  Tensions between the two countries have been rocky since April, but have calmed down recently.  However, during the Summit, China had meetings with other claimants in the South China Sea dispute such as Vietnam and Brunei.  The failure of China and Philippines to meet on the sidelines of the APEC Summit has led some to say it was an intentional snub by China because it views the Philippines to be too aggressive.  

In the interest of regional stability and prosperity, countries in the region will have to make some headway into resolving their disputes.

Report: APEC Summit 2012: U.S. Looks to Calm Rising Tensions in Asia [Huffington Post, 7 September 2012]
Report: No China-Philippines talks at APEC summit [CNA, 9 September 2012]
Report: Clinton to feuding Asian nations: Cool it [TODAY, 10 September 2012]

China, Asia and the US

"The recent re-heating of tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the East and South China Seas vividly highlights the great power vacuum at the heart of East Asia. This is not a power vacuum per se, but rather the stark absence of the type of regional great power management we need to see in order for a rapidly-changing security and economic landscape to remain stable," said SIIA Associate Fellow Evelyn Goh, who is also Associate Professor at Royal Holloway London and a visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"Because China, Japan and South Korea continue to allow historical nationalism and contemporary geopolitical competition to spill into their strategic relationships, they back themselves into having to rely on the United States to keep the peace and to provide leadership in the region. Because ASEAN is unable to develop sufficient strength through unity so as to negotiate the South China Sea disputes with China, some Southeast Asian claimants states have to look to the U.S. to support them rhetorically and materially," she added.

"But beyond securing freedom of navigation -- which is not under direct dispute -- Washington has no interest in helping to resolve the multiple conflicts about sovereign jurisdiction, a task which remains with East Asian states themselves."

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