South China Sea
Japan's lower house on July 16 approved legislation that would allow an expanded role for the nation's Self-Defense Forces in a vote boycotted by the opposition. The vote came one day after Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's ruling LDP-led bloc forced the bills through a committee despite intensifying protests. Opposition lawmakers walked out after their party leaders made final speeches against the bills. Abe cited China's growing military presence in the region in support of the legislation. The bills were drafted after his Cabinet last year adopted a new interpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution. Opponents counter that the new interpretation is unconstitutional. A criticism of the reform is that it is unclear what the new legislation actually does, but it is clearly intended to permit Japanese troops to be deployed on combat missions for the first time since the end of World War II. The package will now be passed on to the upper house of the Diet, and could be approved as early as next week.
Here's another one to file under "Life's little ironies." Vietnam's Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong (the country's "paramount leader") meets with Obama at the White House—a first, coming exactly 20 years after US-Hanoi diplomatic relations were restored. Why now? The Washington Post flatly states that Obama "is seeking to reconfigure a historically difficult relationship with Vietnam into a strategic partnership against China." White House officials "said Hanoi has been signaling interest in forging deeper economic and military ties with the United States," and also emphasized that Vietnam "is among the 12 nations involved in an expansive Pacific Rim trade pact." That's the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which is nearly openly conceived as a counter-measure to China's economic rise.
The Uyghur American Association (UAA) has issued a statement protesting "speculation" over the fate of the missing Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner that disappeared March 8 over the South China Sea en route to Beijing. Among the 239 passengers was Memetjan Abla, an acclaimed Uighur artist whose work dealt with social and political themes. Abla was traveling as part of a Chinese state-sponsored group of 29 artists. UHRP writes: "Conjecture alleging Mr. Abla's presence on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 as evidence of possible Uyghur involvement in the plane's fate is a disservice to his life and work. At present, there is no publicly available evidence to support a Uyghur connection hypothesis and UAA urges commentators to await the results of a full investigation into the incident." As an example of irresponsible speculation, UAA links to a Tweet from Rupert Murdoch: "777crash confirms jihadists turning to make trouble for China. Chance for US to make common cause, befriend China while Russia bullies." (UAA, March 10)
The Obama administration is finalizing an agreement with the Philippines that will allow the US to deploy more troops and weapons in the archipelago nation. The deal avoids the contentious issue of establishing permanent bases and instead will have more US troops using Philippine bases. Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the head of Pacific Command, said the US is seeking access that will enable it to help the Philippines in its defense as well as to aid in responding to disasters. The US maintained large military bases in the Philippines for nearly a century, but the last one, Subic Bay, closed in 1992. Subic Bay is today a "special economic zone," but the former base is still used by US military ships. The deal comes as President Obama has publicly weighed in for the Philippines in its maritime border dispute with China. (NYT, Digital Journal, July 13; NYT, June 8)
In the recent wave of anti-Japan protests in China, we've wondered how much of it was genuinely spontaneous and how much (contrary to official appearances) state-instrumented. The signals are even harder to read in Vietnam, where several were actually arrested in anti-China protests Dec. 8. At issue is the contested South China Sea and its oilfields, a question that has (paradoxically, for those who can remember back just to the 1960s) caused Vietnam to tilt to the US in the New Cold War with China. Has the regime's anti-China propaganda (and exploitation of hopes for an oil bonanza to lift the nation out of poverty) created something now a little out of control? Or are even the arrests part of a choreographed game?
China's move to set up a military garrison at Sansha on disputed Yongxing Island (also known as Woody Island) in the Xisha chain (claimed by the Philippines as the Paracels), along with creating a city administration for the island which has heretofore had few permanent inhabitants, is escalating tensions in the South China Sea (or, as Manila has it, the West Philippine Sea)—the key theater in Washington's new cold war with Beijing. On Aug. 4, Beijing summoned a senior US diplomat, the embassy's deputy chief of mission Robert Wang, over State Department criticism of the move. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement the day before that the US is "concerned by the increase in tensions in the West Philippine Sea and [we] are monitoring the situation closely."