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China’s boldness highlights wider maritime conflicts

Disputes among multiple nations still unresolved

Published: Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

China has made an ominous move in claiming sovereignty over the air, and the Obama administration has appropriately responded with B-52 bombers. The unfolding conflict highlights the dark side of the Beijing regime, and reminds us all that growth of investment and trade has not removed political conflicts and military dangers.

On Nov. 23, Beijing arbitrarily announced a new defense zone encompassing the Senkaku Islands. Those small land areas are occupied by Japan but are now claimed by China.

The announcement stipulated that any aircraft entering the zone are subject to challenge. This includes planes only transiting the zone and not intending to enter China’s national airspace, a departure from current international practice.

On Nov. 26, the U.S. bombers flew through the zone, without incident. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel both have condemned Beijing’s threat to use force over the disputed islands, and the former also mentioned the wider threat to freedom of navigation essential to international peace.

Today there is a range of serious maritime and related territorial disputes, concentrated in Asia but with broad international implications. Argentina, Britain, Brunei, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other nations are involved, and the United States is increasingly engaged.

Vietnam charges that in May, a China vessel invaded “exclusive territorial waters” and rammed a ship, endangering 15 Vietnamese fishermen aboard. Earlier in March, Vietnam accused China of shooting at a fishing boat and causing a fire.

In mid-May, President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines issued a formal public apology for the killing of an unarmed Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters. Tensions have been escalating for months. In June 2012, a confrontation between Chinese and Philippine fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal threatened to become violent before both sides disengaged.

China steadily expands in international power and influence, including rapid construction of enormous new strategic naval capacities. Traditionally, this nation has been cautious in using military force for aggressive moves, but that may be changing.

Also in June 2012, a political maritime confrontation occurred at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner attempted publicly to hand British Prime Minister David Cameron documents regarding the disputed Falkland Islands. Cameron with characteristic cool deflected the grandstanding.

The Falklands, in Argentina referred as the Malvinas Islands, was the site of a brief but extremely bitter war in 1982. The military regime in Buenos Aires seized the islands in a surprise move; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately reacted with determination to retake them.

A British expedition recaptured the outpost in a remarkably impressive demonstration of military effectiveness. However, U.S. logistical support was vital.

The British government remained committed to resolving the long-running dispute with Argentina by referendum among the approximately 3,000 people living on the Falklands. The referendum vote in March indicated nearly universal desire to remain with Britain.

Great Britain until World War II was paramount in maritime influence and power, and remains important. London is a global insurance industry center, populated by firms rooted initially in maritime salvage as well as shipping operations. Ocean commerce has generated deeply rooted and durable international law.

Britain and the U.S. have an opportunity to work together, within existing regional and international institutions, to try to mitigate conflicts that increasingly entangle Asia’s nations. At a minimum, that dangerous dimension should be receiving much more public discussion.

Beijing’s declaration underscores those dangers.

Note to readers: Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.

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