A Maritime Balkans of the 21st Century?

East Asia is a tinderbox on water.

These are no ordinary times in East Asia. With tensions rising from conflicting territorial claims in the East China and South China seas, the region increasingly resembles a 21st-century maritime redux of the Balkans a century ago -- a tinderbox on water. Nationalist sentiment is surging across the region, reducing the domestic political space for less confrontational approaches. Relations between China and Japan have now fallen to their lowest ebb since diplomatic normalization in 1972, significantly reducing bilateral trade and investment volumes and causing regional governments to monitor developments with growing alarm. Relations between China and Vietnam, and between China and the Philippines, have also deteriorated significantly, while key regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have become increasingly polarized. In security terms, the region is more brittle than at any time since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

In Beijing, current problems with Tokyo, Hanoi, and Manila are top of mind. They dominate both the official media and the social media, and the latter have become particularly vitriolic. They also dominate discussions between Chinese officials and foreign visitors. The relationship with Japan in particular is front and center in virtually every official conversation as Chinese interlocutors probe what they identify as a profound change in both the tenor of Japanese domestic politics and the centrality of China within the Japanese debate. Beijing does not desire armed conflict with Japan over territorial disputes, but nonetheless makes clear that it has its own red lines that cannot be crossed for its own domestic reasons, and that it is prepared for any contingency.

Like the Balkans a century ago, riven by overlapping alliances, loyalties, and hatreds, the strategic environment in East Asia is complex. At least six states or political entities are engaged in territorial disputes with China, three of which are close strategic partners of the United States. And there are multiple agencies involved from individual states: In China, for example, the International Crisis Group has calculated that eight different agencies are engaged in the South China Sea alone. Furthermore, these territorial claims -- and the minerals, energy, and marine resources at stake -- are vast. And while the United States remains mostly neutral, the intersection between the narrower interests of claimant states and the broader strategic competition between the United States and China is significant and not automatically containable.

Complicating matters, East Asia increasingly finds itself being pulled in radically different directions. On the one hand, the forces of globalization are bringing its peoples, economies, and countries closer together than at any other time in history, as reflected in intraregional trade, which is now approaching 60 percent of total East Asian trade. On the other hand, the forces of primitive, almost atavistic nationalisms are at the same time threatening to pull the region apart. As a result, the idea of armed conflict, which seems contrary to every element of rational self-interest for any nation-state enjoying the benefits of such unprecedented regional economic dynamism, has now become a terrifying, almost normal part of the regional conversation, driven by recent territorial disputes, but animated by deep-rooted cultural and historical resentments. Contemporary East Asia is a tale of these two very different worlds.

The most worrying fault lines run between China and Japan, and between China and Vietnam. In September 2012, the Japanese government purchased from a private owner three islands in the Senkakus, a small chain of islands claimed by both countries (the Chinese call the islands the Diaoyu). This caused China to conclude that Japan, which had exercised de facto administrative control over the islands for most of the last century, was now moving toward a more de jure exercise of sovereignty. In response, Beijing launched a series of what it called "combination punches": economic retaliation, the dispatch of Chinese maritime patrol vessels to the disputed areas, joint combat drills among the branches of its military, and widespread, occasionally violent public protests against Japanese diplomatic and commercial targets across China. As a result, Japanese exports to China contracted rapidly in the fourth quarter of 2012, and because Japan had already become China's largest trading partner, sliding exports alone are likely to be a significant contributive factor in what is projected to be a large contraction in overall Japanese economic growth in the same period.

In mid-December, Japan claimed that Chinese aircraft intruded over Japanese airspace above the disputed islands for the first time since 1958. After a subsequent incident, Japan dispatched eight F-15 fighter planes to the islands. While both sides have avoided deploying naval assets, there is a growing concern of creeping militarization as military capabilities are transferred to coast guard-type vessels.

While the "static" in Japanese military circles regarding China-related contingency planning has become increasingly audible, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in mid-December, has sought to moderate his public language on China, apparently to send a diplomatic message that he wishes to restore stability to the relationship. This was reinforced by a conciliatory letter sent from Abe to Xi Jinping, China's new leader, on Jan. 25 during a visit to Beijing by the leader of New Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner. This has been publicly and privately welcomed in Beijing, as reflected in Xi's public remarks the following day. Beijing's position is that while it wants Japan to formally recognize the existence of a territorial dispute in order to fortify China's political and legal position on the future of the islands, it also wishes to see the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute managed in a manner that does not threaten regional security, which would undermine the stability necessary to complete its core task of economic reform and growth.

There may therefore be some softening in the China-Japan relationship for the immediate period ahead. But diplomatic and strategic realities appear to remain largely unchanged. The intensity of Abe and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida's unprecedented mid-January diplomatic offensive involving visits to seven East Asian states demonstrates that the temperature between Beijing and Tokyo remains high -- just as the late January statement from Tokyo on the establishment of a special Japanese Coast Guard force of 12 enhanced vessels and 600 servicemen specifically dedicated to the Senkaku theater underlines the nature of the challenges lying ahead. The problem is that neither side can afford domestically to be seen as retreating from current positions. China believes that Japan has altered the status quo; Japan believes it has no need to budge because there is no sovereignty issue in the first place. All of this means that both sides remain captive to events on the high seas and in the air -- events that could quickly spiral out of control.

To prevent this from happening, both sides will obviously need to maintain their public political positions for domestic reasons, while both will need gradually and reciprocally to de-escalate the deployment of maritime and air assets. This would need to be done according to a schedule negotiated by an intermediary or though their own back channels. If such back-channel negotiations are not already under way (and there is some evidence they may be), then it's in the interests of both sides to get the ball rolling. Japan should not install any equipment or station any personnel on the islands, as has been discussed from time to time in Tokyo, as this would inevitably result in further retaliatory action from Beijing, with every prospect of generating a further crisis. If these steps could be taken and the situation then stabilized, perhaps longer-term consideration could be given to inviting an appropriate international environmental agency to exercise environmental management responsibilities on and around the islands, where, by informal agreement, national vessels would not go.

By contrast, territorial claims in the South China Sea are even more complex. According to U.S. agencies, Chinese officials have claimed that the sea contains proven oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels (10 times U.S. reserves, though American scientists are more skeptical) and 25 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves (roughly the total proven reserves of Qatar). The South China Sea also accounts for some 10 percent of the world's annual fisheries catch. The region is already the scene of deeply disputed exploratory activities for deep-sea energy resources. Fisheries are also already the subject of multiple physical confrontations between vessels. Furthermore, unlike the Senkaku/Diaoyu, many islands in the South China Sea are already occupied, garrisoned, and home to naval bases.

Six states plus Taiwan have disputed territorial claims in the area, though the largest overlap by far is between China and Vietnam. The two states have already skirmished over their conflicting claims, in 1974 and 1988; they also fought a major border war in 1979. One senior Vietnamese neatly described the Sino-Vietnamese relationship in May 2011 by saying, "The two countries are old friends and old enemies." It is also clear that the Chinese today possess considerable economic leverage over Vietnam, to the extent that one senior Vietnamese official candidly remarked recently that China could simply wreck the Vietnamese economy if it so chose. It would be wrong, however, given ancient resentments, that economic dependency would automatically constrain Vietnamese diplomatic or even military action in relation to the South China Sea.

The China-Vietnam relationship has soured since Chinese ships severed the seismic cables of Vietnamese exploratory vessels in May 2011 and again in December 2012. According to Reuters, Vietnam subsequently stated that as of January 2013 it would deploy civilian vessels supported by marine police to stop foreign vessels from violating its waters, while India, Vietnam's partner in some of the explorations, indicated it would consider sending naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its interests. Meanwhile, China's Hainan province announced that starting in 2013, provincial maritime surveillance vessels would begin intercepting, searching, and repelling foreign vessels violating Chinese territorial seas, including the disputed territory. These various statements concerning new and radically conflicting procedures for the interception of foreign vessels set the stage for significant confrontation in the year ahead. Vietnam and China appear to have set themselves on a collision course, and those who monitor this relationship closely fear a repeat of those earlier armed conflicts.

To prevent further escalation, Beijing and Hanoi need now to step back from the edge. They should agree to prioritize development of, and agreement on, the long-awaited code of conduct between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea, including the joint development of energy projects. Both governments should identify a single project in an area where both sides claim sovereignty and begin the practical negotiation of a joint development regime. If this is too difficult, then both sides could consider the development of a joint fisheries project in a single defined area, as this would further sidestep sensitive sovereignty issues more acutely connected with resource extraction regimes. In other words, rather than wait for the conclusion of a complex diplomatic negotiation over the final text of the code of conduct, start to build trust by cooperating on a real project. If this approach succeeds with China and Vietnam, similar joint development projects could be developed with the other claimant states.

None of this might work. Nationalism might prevail. Policymakers could simply allow events to run their course, like they did a century ago. In his recent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, historian Christopher Clark recounts how the petty nationalisms of the Balkans combusted with the great-power politics and failed statesmanship of the time to produce the industrial-scale carnage of World War I. This was a time when economic globalization was even deeper than it is today, and when the governments of Europe, right up until 1914, had concluded that a pan-European war was irrational and, therefore, impossible. I believe a pan-Asian war is extremely unlikely. Nonetheless, for those of us who live in this region, facing escalating confrontations in the East China and South China seas, Europe is a cautionary tale very much worthy of reflection.


Democracy Lab

The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen

It used to be that it was mainly the liberal democracies who banded together in defense of their values. No longer.

For years now, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia have been talking about the importance of common efforts to promote human rights and democratic values around the world. If the liberal democracies pooled their efforts, there seemed good reason to believe that they could embed these values in international law and succeed in fostering the growth of freedom.

It turns out, however, that the autocrats haven't been asleep at the wheel, either. And nowhere is this truer in Eurasia, where Russia, China, and the Central Asian states have been busy discovering the virtues of alliance in a common cause. They've been working hard to forge an international front of anti-democrats, developing a new set of counter-strategies and regional legal tools. It seems to be working. The latest edition of Freedom House's global survey of political rights notes that its findings are "particularly grim for Eurasian countries."

Over the last year, Vladimir Putin's Russia has renewed its crackdown on democratic opposition, most recently by staging an all-out assault on non-government organizations with foreign ties. The Chinese Communist Party has also been doing its best to silence critics and maintain its tight control over dissidents. Yet far less attention has gone to the two countries' transnational efforts to band together in their efforts to snuff out democratic impulses.

The rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a case in point. Comprised of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO presents itself as a new-style international organization that champions the principle of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of its member states -- a not-too subtle jibe at the political and economic conditions imposed by other Western-led groups. Originally, the SCO's precursor, the Shanghai Five, resolved lingering Soviet-era border disputes among its members, but the group has now expanded its activities to include security, economic initiatives, infrastructure development and education. Though the organization's formal headquarters is in Beijing, cooperation among the SCO's internal security services are conducted through the poetically named Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS) located in Tashkent.

Under the mantra of combating the "three evils" of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, RATS maintains a consolidated watch list of regional "extremist" individuals and organizations. The list has expanded dramatically, initially from 15 organizations and individuals in 2006 to 42 organizations and over 1100 individuals in 2010. Human rights groups fear that this expansion is the result of authoritarian "logrolling," as each country lists its own regime threats in exchange for agreeing to other countries' designations, which may include political opponents in addition to bona fide terrorists.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights has expressed "serious concerns" about SCO data-sharing and listing procedures, noting that they were "not subject to any meaningful form of oversight and there are no human rights safeguards attached to data and information sharing." RATS may even be sharing surveillance technologies under new cybersecurity initiatives launched in response to the political mobilization facilitated by social networks during the Arab Spring.

In 2009, SCO member states signed a new Anti-Terrorism Treaty that allows for suspects to be transferred among member states with minimal evidence of their crimes, and even permits member states to "dispatch their agents to the territory" of another SCO member state when conducting a criminal investigation (Article 18, original, unofficial translation).

The SCO Treaty has a regional counterpart in the Minsk Convention, originally signed in 1993, which also has been cited to justify the forced return of accused suspects facing criminal charges. For example, in June 2010, Kazakhstan extradited 29 political asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan. Kazakhstani prosecutors justified the extradition under both the Minsk and SCO accords, stating that the complainants were involved in "illegal organizations" and accused of "attempts to overthrow the constitutional order;" but a subsequent communication from the U.N. Committee Against Torture (CAT) found that Kazakh authorities had still violated their non-refoulement obligation, the CAT provision that mandates that a "State party cannot return an individual if a risk of torture exists in the receiving State."

According to human rights organizations (here, here), these regional agreements have facilitated a number of politically motivated renditions and abductions. The most prominent cases involve transfers of Central Asians from Russia and Uighurs from both Russia and Central Asia to China. Last year the European Court of Human Rights, where several of these Russian cases have been litigated, even sent the European Council of Ministers a letter of concern about the plight of a group of Central Asian litigants. The so-called "Garabayev Group" comprises 18 cases examined by the court from 2007 to 2011, most of them involving Uzbek and Tajik citizens, many of who were forcibly abducted from Russia.

To be sure, these legal frameworks are not necessary for the conduct of such extra-territorial activities (and it's worth noting that the United States also cooperated with Central Asian security services earlier in the decade to render suspects to and from the region). For example, Russian political dissident Leonid Razvozzhayev was abducted in Kyiv by armed agents in October and transported to Moscow, while Uzbek security services are reportedly operating independently both in and beyond Eurasia. As Russian investigative journalists point out, Russia has, as a result, ceased to be the "safe space" for Central Asian political dissidents and oppositionists that it was during the 1990s.

These regional organizations are also cynically emulating the form, but not the substance, of established democratic actors. Both the SCO and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have established their own "election observers," mostly as a response to the consistent criticism that Central Asian elections received from the OSCE's established monitoring missions run by its Office for Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR). Neither regional body has adopted the United Nations Code of Conduct for International Election Observers and, not surprisingly, these missions usually reach conclusions about the quality of Eurasian elections that are dramatically at odds with those of the ODIHR.

For example, while in 2007 the ODHIR heavily criticized the quality of the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections that allowed autocrat Kurmanbek Bakiyev to consolidate his grip on power, both CIS and SCO monitors certified the legality and legitimacy of the poll. The CIS Election Monitoring Organization also oversees elections in the disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdnistria, thus providing the only source of external legitimacy for these polls.

Finally, authoritarians are now targeting the rights agenda even within established international organizations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established in 1995 as successor to the landmark CSCE, has seen its once vibrant democratic mandate effectively dismantled. Russia, Belarus and the Central Asian states have attempted to gut the organization's election observation missions and actively blocked adding new "human dimension" projects. Researchers also have even noted how in its security projects, such as promoting police reform in Central Asia, the OSCE has jettisoned political conditions, unintentionally enhancing the capacity of these authoritarian regimes.

Even the United Nations is now becoming a battleground for contesting and redefining political rights. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, over the last 10 years Russia and China have exhibited higher correspondence with votes in the General Assembly on human rights issues than either the United States or the European Union. In 2011, for example, the overall support for the United States from other states was just 37 percent, whereas China's was 60 percent and Russia's 59 percent. Moscow is also taking the lead in introducing new counter-norms in the human rights sphere -- in September 2012 the U.N. Human Rights Committee narrowly passed a controversial resolution, introduced by Russia, promoting the "traditional values of mankind," a text that LGBT rights activists have condemned as potentially undermining gay rights -- especially as the Russian parliament considers new legislation to criminalize "gay propaganda."

To be sure, the situation within the OSCE and United Nations reflects the broader overall schism in Russia's relations with the West. But given its ruthless clampdown on NGOs and the rise of new regional organizations that prioritize sovereignty over democracy, Russia is now leading an effective three-pronged assault on the external actors that have helped to promote and disseminate the Western values agenda.(In this respect, it’s revealing that, just this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to consider membership in the SCO as a way of expressing his displeasure with the pace of negotiations on Turkish accession to the European Union.)

Confronting Eurasia's new authoritarian architecture will require both Washington and Brussels to challenge the legality and purpose of these authoritarian practices. Ignoring their growing importance, or even choosing to selectively engage with groups like the SCO on less controversial issues, will only further serve to legitimize these new challenges, thereby further undermining democratic norms and Western standing in Eurasia and beyond. 

Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages