China's neighbors respond nervously as its expansionist moves threaten peace.
MUNAKATA, JAPAN Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, having just engineered the first free, fair and above all peaceful election in the history of Africa's tiny, often bloodied nation of Guinea-Bissau, is taking on a grander challenge. His goal now is to find some way for a resolutely expansionist China to live in harmony with its Asian neighbors whose waters it is seeking to usurp — with only the most thinly veiled threats of force.
During a conversation at the international Eco-100 International Forum in this village in the far southwest coast of Japan — 500 miles from both Shanghai and the hotly contested islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China — Horta disclosed that he has assembled a group that would include for the first time officials from the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the neighboring communist nations of China and Vietnam for face-to-face talks about this critical issue of control of the seas in a "closed session (where they can) listen to all sides."
Kerry's China trip
Secretary of State John Kerry raised the same issues in China this month, calling for a legally binding code of conduct for all Asian nations governing navigation and prohibiting unilateral actions in the East and South China seas.
The goal for both Kerry and Ramos-Horta is for all these disparate nations, each with profound offshore interests being threatened by Beijing, to resolve the issues before the menace from China turns into armed confrontation.
The advice from Ramos-Horta, ever the peacemaker, is to "look at China as a strategic partner. It is 1.3 billion people with tremendous potential for good, tremendous potential for disaster. Rather than pursue a policy of containment, which the Chinese react (badly) to, look at how to put major powers together."
That might be easier said than done. Many of the offshore islands, some uninhabited, many little more than small piles of rock or spits of sand, have longed been claimed by any number of Asian nations and are tensely contested. The islands are thought to hold access to great undiscovered and untapped reserves of oil and gas, as well as other valuable minerals. China's neighbors fear the ancient nation now rising again will use force to gain some of the oil- and mineral-rich territories they most covet.
If the Ramos-Horta or Kerry efforts fail, there is always the approach of Japan's new prime minister, who warns that his nation will help any Asian country threatened by the overwhelming military power of China. Japan's neighbors had mixed emotions when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proclaimed in May that his country is prepared to provide military aid should any find its territorial claims, onshore or off, challenged by an expansionist and aggressive China.
This is an entirely new position for Japan, which since its defeat in World War II when it conquered many of these nations has maintained a military that it describes as a "self-defense force." Now it appears the current government could be prepared to go on the offensive. Much of this is a tribute to a reluctance by many senior Japanese officials to trust that the United States will be there for them in Japan's hour of greatest need, despite all reassurances from President Obama on his last Asian swing.
Yet the Japanese people remain deeply divided over any role in defending even waters Japan has long called its own.
The Munakata conference gathered more than 200 delegates who are government officials, leaders of business and finance, non-governmental and environmental organizations, and students. After lunch on the final day, I asked the assembled crowd how many would enlist, if necessary, in their nation's military to defend its territory from aggression by China. Six hands went up. How many would refuse to enlist? A forest of hands — the entire rest of the room.
Ramos-Horta says there is still room for diplomacy to work, hoping to tamp down Abe's sword rattling and hold the Americans at bay as well. Both make the Chinese anxious at a time when nerves and snap reactions could be fatal for many.
He believes deeply in "preventive diplomacy" rather than peacekeeping. "Diplomacy does not have to be public," he smiles thinly. "It can be extremely discrete to save face." In conclusion, he adds, even "an agenda which is minimal can be building blocks for long-term peace."
David A. Andelman, editor in chief of World Policy Journal, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author ofA Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.
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