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The thorny issue of the South China Sea between Japan, China and Vietnam

Commentary:  The sovereignty of the South China Sea islands has become a serious issue that challenges China-Japan and China-Vietnam relations. The confrontation is not limited to a specific strategy in the field of maritime economy, but to a mutual development strategy that embodies the will of the coastal countries confronted with their own future

 

Japan is a long and narrow island country from North to South and narrower from East to West. Its land surface (377,975 square kilometers) is little larger than Italy’s. It borders the Pacific Ocean to the East and looks across the ocean to the United States of America to the East; to the West it faces China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), as well as the Russian Federation by sea but without strategic depth.

The rise of modern Japan during the Meiji Restoration elevated it at the time to the rank of “foundation of all Asian nations”. It opened up thousands of multiple political-military outlets and spread the country’s prestige in all directions. In so doing, it showed Japan’s intention to go beyond its Japanese archipelago and spread abroad.

This was confirmed, in fact, by the forms of continental policy, proposing a line of defense sovereignty and the theory of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere or Greater East Asia Collective Prosperity Sphere, shown in the 1940s.

In response to the situation in the Far East after World War I, Japan implemented a strategy of moving from North to South and in World War II it set for itself the goal of moving its interests to the Republic of China. When the armed forces invaded an internally divided China, due to Japan’s lack of internal resources, the self-sufficiency economic situation was seriously challenged, with the results we all know.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is located in the Eastern part of the Indochina peninsula, bordering China to the North, Laos and Cambodia to the West and the South China Sea to the East and the South. It covers an area of 331,212 square kilometers (slightly more than Italy’s). Its coastline is 3,260 km long (excluding islands), and the country stretches 1,600 kilometers from North to South: its narrowest point is 50 kilometers.

Mountains are high in the West and low in the East. Three quarters of the territory is mountainous. In the mid-19th century, Vietnam had no concept of marine economy or trade. However, with the occupation of some oil- and gas-rich areas and islands in the South China Sea, as well as through private development, Vietnam gained huge economic benefits, and has later formulated a series of marine policies since the 1960s.

In 2007, it approved a marine development project with 2020 as its goal. With strategic planning it tirelessly pursued the goals of a “sea power” and adopted a policy to strongly develop the marine economy, combining marine and maritime economy with national defense and security. Vietnam did not give up and fought for every square inch of island land, with the aim of obtaining a favorable strategic position and practical advantages.

As the awareness of maritime sovereignty grew, in the midst of fierce conflicts of national interests and drastic changes in international and regional geopolitical relations, Japan and Vietnam found themselves in the Senkaku (Chinese: Diaoyu), Paracel (Chinese: Xisha Quan; Vietnamese: Hoàng Sa) and Spratly (Chinese: Nansha; Vietnamese: Truong Sa) islands.

There has been an open debate on the sovereignty issue. So far the disputes between China and Japan over the ownership of the South China Sea islands have not been properly resolved. The sovereignty of the South China Sea islands has become a serious issue that challenges bilateral relations between China and Japan, as well as the bilateral relations between China and Vietnam.

Indeed, one of the important goals in strengthening Japan’s and Vietnam’s maritime strategies is the use of oil and gas resources, but the dispute over the sovereignty of territorial waters and related exclusive economic zones is the most important issue.

With technological development, the earth’s resources will gradually shrink and be depleted. The ocean’s abundant resources will become the last piece of territory that can offer resources to the earth’s countries. Clearly the division of maritime borders and the island sovereignty between Japan and Vietnam involves the fundamental interests of national territorial sovereignties, and the various maritime measures and policies adopted by these two countries in the maritime sector will have a huge impact on the South China Sea. This impact is also the main reason for the stability of the South China Sea in the future.

As seen above, the issues regarding the South China Sea are complex and the other major player, namely the United States of America, must act cautiously and take precautions when dealing with the issue of these shores. Moreover, the effectiveness of its South China Sea policy should also be measured by whether it favors the achievement of the US strategic goals without coming into conflict with the People’s Republic of China, not least because of the presence of US military bases in the area.

Certainly, the United States will use the so-called South China Sea sovereignty issue in the Asia-Pacific region to incite China’s neighbors in the short term, but it must be said that in the long term the US influence will gradually decrease due to issues of greater remoteness. Dominance is waning, and the course of international relations is changing and cracking traditional hegemonies.

This is the iron law of historical development. China’s rise must therefore ensure the international security and fluidity of the South China Sea. Japan and Vietnam are the main reasons that will influence the stability of the South China Sea in the future.

As a result, China is stepping up the definition and implementation of the South China Sea military and maritime economic strategy. Having a strong ocean capability is the expression of a country’s comprehensive and global value in politics, economics and business, national defense, science and technology.

With the fast development of global industrial modernization, China is an economically and demographically rich country. In the future, the South China Sea will be an important channel linking China to the rest of the world. The South China Sea and its coastal areas will be key strategic regions, and will cross the economic construction and national defense security of every country bordering it.

Fluidity and prosperity are also the ultimate goal of China’s rise. On the contrary, once wars and conflicts occur in these areas, they will affect and warn China’s economy and national defense security. Therefore, military strategy in the South China Sea outweighs economic value, if the latter is not adequately protected.

The confrontation over the South China Sea is not limited to a specific strategy in the field of maritime economy, but to a mutual development strategy that embodies the will of the coastal countries which, facing the ocean, are confronted with their own future.

At present, China itself is actively pursuing its maritime strategy, starting with maintaining and reclaiming sovereignty over territories traditionally belonging to the Motherland, by undertaking a more advanced military presence. It is also joining other countries in oil and gas exploration, as well as in mining, by strengthening research and sharing based on historical and legal principles.

Strengthening its presence, also through the construction of coastal, offshore and island areas, is a gradual march towards deep and distant seas, in line with the development interests for the South China Sea.

Provinces and cities in countries bordering the South China Sea are also considering the development of marine economy as an important goal, because the ocean is a strategic resource for the sustainable development of mankind and belongs to everyone.

Giancarlo Elia Valori