Resources and Militarisation in the East China Sea (Re-upload)

This article was first posted on 15 October 2012 and has been featured this week in light of renewed tensions in the region.

East China Sea smallAs the long running tensions over the set of islands in the East China Sea appear to be coming to a head, the time for thinking through the alternatives to the militarisation of this conflict seems to be well and truly upon us.

The conflict raises interesting issues about sovereignty claims based on offshore territories, particularly as we face a climate-constrained future as well as the increasing importance of competition over scarce resources. The latter is fast becoming one of the most important global trends if one thinks about the potential ‘drivers’ of conflict and even war.

Spiralling naval spending in the region has been tracked by analysts for some years now, and flashpoints such as the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands could show rampant military spending and arms racing for the dangerous trends that they are if things deteriorate rapidly. Arms racing helps to reinforce security dilemmas (the problems of interpreting the motives of potential adversaries and responding in-kind by arming yourself thus creating a spiral towards ever increasing militarisation). Arms racing also discourages the development of what Ken Booth and Nicholas Wheeler refer to as ‘security dilemma sensibility’ – the ability to “perceive the motives behind, and to show responsiveness towards, the potential complexity of the military intentions of others. In particular, it refers to the ability to understand the role that fear might play in their attitudes and behaviour, including, crucially, the role that one’s own actions may play in provoking that fear.”

But what is particularly important to note in relation to this crisis is the interaction between the trends of increasing militarisation and competition over resources. The potential hydrocarbon resources beneath the ground around the islands as well as the rich fishing grounds in the surrounding waters gives the competing claims to sovereignty a particular strategic bite.

Imposed on top of this is the effect of unresolved historical tensions and fierce nationalist sentiment in some quarters of both Japan and China. The coverage of the dispute in the media has been particularly important. Kevin Clements and Ria Shibata have noted that “this might be expected in China, which has a state-run media. In democratic Japan and Taiwan, however, the media have also promoted official and unofficial nationalist positions on the conflict. This has been accompanied by a marginalising or silencing of moderate voices favouring negotiated non-violent solutions to the conflict.” Interestingly, the most constructive voices calling for calm who have been able to cut through the jingoism and sabre rattling have been the business community concerned with the bigger picture issues of losing trade and tourism between China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Clements and Shibata have outlined five initial steps that could be used to de-escalate the issue and begin the difficult but unavoidable process of a negotiated solution. In the longer-term, both regional powers and important external players will need to put addressing the inter-linked trends of militarisation and increasing competition over strategic resources at the heart of any attempts to avoid the worst case scenarios playing out.

Ben Zala is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester.

Image source: Al Jazeera English.