Disputed borders: growing militarisation of the Asia-Pacific region

Peter D Jones

Since the end of the Cold War, the dream of a peace dividend has disappeared as militarisation simply shifts its focus to find new areas of conflict. In the Asia-Pacific region, where nation states are a relatively new feature of history, border disputes have inevitably resurfaced. In the 21st century, it is not only land borders that are the subject of disputes but sea boundaries as nations jockey for control of underwater resources. At the same time, the USA has opted to shit its geostrategic focus from Europe to Asia, and new nations and alliances have emerged, as we have become a multi-polar world rather than one with just two superpowers, then only one. In addition, a number of developing nations are using their new wealth to build up and modernise their armed forces, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.<--break- />

Two factors now seem to be driving a regional arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. One is over disputed borders on land and at sea, the other reflects the current pivot of the US military focus away from Europe and towards the Asia-Pacific region. The latter is mainly driven by a desire to contain growing Chinese naval expansion and claims to reefs and islands in the South China Sea. Here old historical claims come up against the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (formally established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982), which allows control of potential underwater oil and gas reserves while China also claims its expansion is driven by a desire to protect its sea lanes for its growing maritime trade.

Interesting new alliances are being forged, some bringing together former old enemies like Japan and countries it occupied during the Pacific War (1941-45) while Viet Nam is developing new links with the United States and Australia, reflecting its old fear of Chinese expansion. Cynics observe that there is nothing new about Chinese claims to some of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and that measured against the US military presence on islands across the entire Pacific Ocean, the US raising alarm bells about Chinese naval expansion sounds somewhat hypocritical. China has land borders with seventeen countries and has a number of ongoing border disputes with several of them as well as seeking to emphasise its claim to islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

In the South China Sea, six countries (Malaysia, Brunei, Viet Nam, Taiwan and the Philippines as well as China) have conflicting claims where sea borders overlap. A new official map of China produced in June this year emphasised the disputed waters far more than previous maps, saying it is designed for the Chinese public, but it indicates that China claims over 90% of the South China Sea area. The Philippines in turn exhibited 60 ancient maps of Asia in Manila going back to 1136, arguing that none of them back up China’s claim to any maritime territories beyond Hainan Island. Particularly at stake is the Scarborough Shoal just off the coast of the Philippines where Chinese fishermen were caught ‘poaching’ in 2012.

Recent photos also show that China has been dredging sand to construct an airstrip on the Fiery Cross Reef and has reclaimed 2,000 acres of sea in the Spratly Islands although there is nothing new about creating artificial islands. China claims that they are only doing construction work on islands that they physically possess anyway, arguing that other countries like Viet Nam are active on more islands than China.

China is also involved in a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, again with underwater resources at stake. In addition Japan has unresolved claims over the southern Kurile islands with Russia, never resolved after the Pacific War finished in 1945.

Another geo-strategic shift since the Cold War ended, is that India has become part of this growing alliance against China in addition to its its continuing border dispute with Beijing in the Himalayas, with both countries publishing maps showing the disputed areas as part of their own territory.

Behind these border disputes is growing militarisation of the region, as countries expand their military budgets and buy new combat hardware or are developing their own ships and submarines. Both China and India are building missile carrying SSBNs and aircraft carriers while India aims to have a 200 ship navy by 2027. Its submarines initially came from Germany and Russia but it is currently discussing the purchase of submarines from France. Malaysia has two Scorpene class submarines built by the French DCN Compagnie and Spanish Navantia while South Korea, also engaged is a territorial dispute with Japan over the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan (rich fishing grounds are at stake here), has nine type 214 submarines brought from Germany’s HDW GMbH in Kiel. Singapore’s submarines are Swedish while Viet Nam has bought three Kilo class submarines from Russia (with three more on order) and has ordered fifty land-attack missiles with a range of 300 kms. Thailand, Bangladesh and Pakistan have ordered their submarines from China.

The hawkish Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in addition to increasing the military budget, has persuaded his Cabinet to allow the Japanese Self Defence Force to engage in military operations to protect its allies, a policy that was previously banned by Article 9 of the 1947 Peace Constitution forced on Japan by the United States after the end of the war. He has also lifted Japan’s weapons export ban and in May this year, Japan hosted its first international arms exhibition since the war, organised by British security company, MAST. In June, a Japanese P3-C Orion surveillance plane with a Philippines aircraft flew over the South China Sea, ostensibly as practice for potential humanitarian coordination, while Japanese engineers are assisting Filipinos build a naval base on Palawan Island facing the South China Sea. Here China claims islands close to the Philippines while asserting they have always been Chinese.

Japan is also working to strengthen its alliance with the USA and Australia, and is engaged in a bid to build Australia’s next generation of twelve to fifteen submarines, though Australia’s main domestic concern is that they are built in South Australia. Here the Australian Submarine Corporation has 2,000 workers depending on new orders and growing unemployment is a major state issue. To strengthen the alliance with the United States, 2,500 Marine Corps personnel are being rotated through the northern port city of Darwin which constitutes a ‘lily-pad’ or a ‘not really a base’ forming part of the Pentagon’s pivot to Asia.

At the same time, joint war games continue with Operation Talisman Sabre currently (July) under way in the Northern Territory and Queensland, involving 30,000 troops from the USA, Australia and New Zealand. This exercise is held every two years and lasts for twenty days. Local peace groups have organised protests, including the Quaker Grannies holding a tea party on the training area, and a number of activists have been arrested. Not surprisingly, Australia, like other US allies. has also ordered up to 75 of the new Lockheed-Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, despite technological problems with its development.

Some US commentators have forecast war against China within ten years while China sees itself as simply reasserting its historic role as the Middle Kingdom after two centuries of national humiliation. What is certain is that the rapid force modernisation of so many countries in the region will lead to growing instability and by contrast with Europe, the peace movement only really exists in a few countries in the region like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and to a limited extent, India and South Korea.

Peter Jones was originally a member of the PPU in England from 1958 and has been associated with the WRI since 1973. He is currently the contact for the WRI in Australia and has worked closely with anti-militarist networks in the Asia-Pacific region for the last forty years.