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A Lack of Peace in the Far East

The Pacific Ocean traces its name back to Magellan, who called it the Mar Pacifico, or “peaceful ocean.”

Today, the waves are much choppier.

China just launched its first operational aircraft carrier. Japanese coast guard ships are firing water cannons at Taiwanese vessels.

What’s causing all this?

It depends on whom you ask. The Chinese refer to them as the “Diaoyu,” while in Japan they’re known as the “Senkaku.” They’re a series of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, none of which is larger than four square miles. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot worth fighting over.

That was before the UN reported that significant quantities of oil might exist in the region. In the wake of this news, just about every country with a coastline on the Pacific made a claim to the islands. The East China Sea also sees a lot of fishing traffic. Today, China, Japan, and to a degree, Taiwan, each claim a part of or the entire area. 

Tensions recently spiked when the Japanese government purchased some of these islands from private owners. China interpreted this as a hostile act, and relations between the two nations quickly deteriorated.

The conflict has sparked outrage and nationalism in both countries. China and Japan have long maintained a somewhat strained relationship, marred by the violence and brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, especially the Rape of Nanjing.

Now, Japan is struggling to remain relevant, while China continues to expand both economic and military positions aggressively.

The conflict has put Asia in an uncomfortable situation. China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies, respectively. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. The two can’t afford to be at odds with each other, but there are daily protests in Chinese cities, targeting Japanese businesses and products.

If that wasn’t enough, Japan is holding elections this year. China is undergoing a complete leadership overhaul, as President Hu Jintao ends his five-year term. Leaders in both countries can’t afford to look weak in such politically unstable environments. China’s Independence Day is October 1st.

A perfect storm has developed in the Pacific, and no end to the conflict is in sight. If anything, the situation continues to escalate. China has gone to the UN with a formal claim to the islands, which is now awaiting approval. While unlikely to pass, it is a powerful gesture by the Chinese government.

It appears that a third party will need to step in to resolve the issue. Until that happens, there will be rough waters in the Pacific.

Written by Andy Li’13



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