"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why We Need A Larger, Not a Smaller Navy

While we talk about videotapes and whether 47% of us are moochers and "gaffes" of various sorts, the larger world seems more and more to be entering a state of entropy.   Will a reporter today ask either Romney or Obama about a billion-plus population, second-largest economy in the world country -- China -- that seems intent upon provoking a conflict with one of our allies, Japan?

What should have been a fairly traditional, if uncomfortable, round of protests and counter-demonstrations in China and Japan over ownership of the Senkaku Islands is in danger of spiraling out of control. The islands sit off the northeast tip of Taiwan and are close to massive undersea oil and gas deposits. They have been administered by Tokyo since 1972 (as part of the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control), but Japan, China, and Taiwan all claim ownership. Activists from both China and Japan have landed on the islands in recent weeks, sparked by Tokyo’s decision to purchase the islands from their private Japanese owners. This has led to massive protests across China and the targeting of Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses. Now, a number of Japan’s largest companies that do business in China are temporarily suspending operations, including Mazda, Uniqlo, and Aeon department stores. Others are the target of a coordinated boycott campaign.

That is not enough to bring about conflict, but actions in the waters off the Senkakus just might be. Last week, China sent six maritime patrol ships to the islands, where they were confronted by Japan’s Coast Guard. Most withdrew quickly, and those that remained left a day later. Now, China is upping the ante by sending eleven patrol ships back to the disputed waters. On top of that, a massive flotilla of up to 1,000 Chinese fishing boats is supposedly on its way to the islands as well. It is, in fact, Chinese fishing boats that are the cause of most of the tensions between China and its maritime neighbors in Asia. They enter contested waters to fish, and are invariably backed up by maritime patrol boats. This is what triggered a month-long standoff between the Philippines and China earlier this year in the South China Sea, and what caused a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkakus back in 2010.

Beijing continually tries to push the envelope, seeing how far other nations will go in protecting their territory (or, in China’s view, contested territory). In no cases of which I’m aware has Beijing reined in Chinese fishermen in order to contain tension. Instead, in almost every instance, it inflames such situations by sending in its patrol ships to back up the fishermen. Even those who are skeptical that China is really a menace to its neighbors would have trouble defending these increasingly aggressive actions.

Now Japan and China may be just one step away from a shooting incident.

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