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.