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Navigating Tensions in the East China Sea
Navigating Tensions in the East China Sea
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
Op-Ed / Asia

Navigating Tensions in the East China Sea

Originally published in Huffington Post

China's response to Japan's move last year to nationalize the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands could well lead to a predicament familiar to other great powers: getting stuck in a conflict it doesn't really want.

Last month, Beijing brought its maritime law enforcement capacity, previously scattered among five agencies, under a unified command. The move, according to one Chinese analyst, will turn "an open palm" into a "clenched fist." The head of the revamped agency has affirmed that regular Chinese patrols of the disputed islands will continue. Beijing's goal is to wear down Japan -- and the rest of the world -- into accepting that Japan no longer solely administers the islands. Instead, in the course of the past six months, China has established the notion of "overlapping" control.

This tactic can be termed "reactive assertiveness": respond heavy-handedly to perceived provocations by rival claimants in order to alter the status quo.

Last spring, responding to the Philippines' sending in a warship to arrest Chinese fishermen operating near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, China roped off the mouth of the main lagoon and began regular patrols. The result is that, in waters where neither country had a permanent presence, China has established control. Similarly, in June, after Vietnam passed new navigation regulations covering the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands, China established a new administrative area, complete with a military garrison, Sansha City, to encompass the islands,.

As for the Diaoyu/Senkaku, China took advantage of a move in September by the Japanese government to purchase three of the disputed islands from their private owner and began regularly dispatching law enforcement vessels into waters that previously had been administered by Japan's Coast Guard.

Such measures are designed to be irreversible. Scarborough Shoal remains inaccessible to Filipino fishermen and the development of Sansha City continues apace. On the Diaoyu/Senkakus, Chinese analysts say that the core message to Japan is: Face reality. The situation has fundamentally changed. Now we also exert our authority over the islands.

The Chinese have accomplished this without firing a single shot, instead relying on their various Coast Guard-like agencies to act as roving sovereignty defenders.

The danger is that one of these vessels -- or one of the Chinese naval and air force patrols increasingly active in the East China Sea -- will collide with a foreign ship or plane, or even engage one. According to Japan, Chinese naval vessels locked their weapons-guiding radar on Japanese military assets, claims that China has denied.

The actors that populate the two countries' frontline of contact -- maritime agencies and militaries -- have little understanding of each other's intentions and protocols, and recent tensions have made this worse. Their missions are to vigorously defend sovereignty claims -- with corresponding incentive structures built into their bureaucracies. In the event of an accident, they would have a vested interest in blaming the other side. Their monopoly over information would shape perceptions back home among both leaders and the public. The news of a clash with Japan would pour oil on the nationalist fires that the Chinese government has sought to extinguish. The Chinese leadership would have to choose between continuing to escalate or face the political peril of appearing weak against Japan.

The two countries' traditional crisis-management structures have been unraveling for several years. Top leaders mistrust each other; back-channel diplomacy between high-level politicians has waned; foreign ministries have been incapable of dialogue beyond reciting official statements. The foreign ministry in China generally learns about international incidents from foreign diplomats or the press, as its position in the Chinese decision-making bureaucracy continues is weak. A super committee is being established to coordinate China's first grand maritime strategy. The foreign ministry will be represented, but only one among more than a dozen agencies involved in maritime affairs.

Aware of the absence of effective crisis mitigation mechanisms, the two countries have tried -- but failed -- to establish new and more stable communication channels. A prime minister's hotline was established but is not used in crises. A possible military-to-military hotline has been negotiated for years, but talks stop whenever tensions start. Negotiations for a maritime communication channel had barely begun when the island dispute reignited and shut talks down.

While both sides have stated that they do not want to take up arms against each other, a conflict does not have to result from a deliberate decision. Avoiding one, however, requires careful and methodical planning. Unfortunately, this is just the kind of diplomacy that both China and Japan are both neglecting, or even unlearning. The world's second- and third-largest economies need to find ways to manage their differences, especially in this period of chronic crises -- or the crises will begin making their foreign policies for them.

Op-Ed / Asia

National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Originally published in The Diplomat

Pakistan’s central government is all-in on CPEC. But at key points, local communities are resisting.

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general election on July 25, most political parties stand united in their belief that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will transform Pakistan’s ailing economy. In May, Pakistan’s ambassador to China asserted that “regardless of any political change in Pakistan, our commitment towards the successful completion of CPEC will not change.”

But if political support at the national level appears unwavering, local opposition is growing over the lack of consultation and concerns regarding the inequitable distribution of the prospective benefits. In few places is this more noticeable than the southern Balochistan fishing town of Gwadar, the entry point of the corridor and a microcosm of the center-periphery tensions elsewhere that threaten CPEC’s implementation.

An Ambitious Vision

Aiming to develop a “growth axis and development belt” between China and Pakistan, CPEC could involve investments of some $60 billion. The corridor connects Gwadar, in the southwestern province of Balochistan, to China’s Xinjiang region via a 2,700 kilometer route through the mountainous terrain of Gilgit-Baltistan in northernmost Pakistan .

For China’s and Pakistan’s foreign policies, the potential payoffs are clear. CPEC is a flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a geopolitical ambition to develop trade and infrastructure with over 60 economies across Eurasia, Africa, and beyond. For Islamabad, CPEC brings the hope of not only economic dividends but also potentially a geopolitical reconfiguration. Some Pakistani strategists believe deepening ties to China will offset rising U.S. diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at ending Islamabad’s support to Afghanistan- and India-oriented militant proxies.

CPEC’s prospective economic benefits are forecast to materialize slowly across Pakistan between 2017 and 2030. But policy planning has been opaque, omitting details of how development projects will actually impact local economies, infrastructure and business. An urban planner and expert on Gwadar said the government’s plan lacks even “cosmetic consultation.” As more details slowly emerge, local alarm is growing about what CPEC will bring to Balochistan.

Stirring Local Unrest

In Gwadar, the Arabian Sea town in southern Balochistan that CPEC aims to transform into a bustling commercial port, inner city locals fear displacement over government plans to expropriate land, bulldoze the old city, and resettle residents. The state-led land grab is estimated to claim at least 290,000 acres to make way for development, in large part through ultimatums issued to local residents. Those who refuse to sell land or property could simply have it seized by the federal government and would likely face forced resettlement.

Local livelihoods also appear to be under fire. Fisher folk, whose daily catch provides them just enough to feed their families, have on occasion been denied access to the sea and could face the permanent closure of Gwadar’s jetty. Unskilled workers resent exclusion from the port’s construction, as federal authorities favor importing labor from other provinces. One official in Gwadar said that “the plan seems to be to make life so miserable for the residents that they leave on their own.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions.

Nor is it clear that those who stay in Gwadar will reap the fruits of Chinese investment. At the start of the project, Pakistan transferred leasing rights for Gwadar port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company, sealing a deal that grants China 91 percent of the port-generated profits and Islamabad just 9 percent, while denying Balochistan’s provincial government any revenue. With such lopsided terms, China is under minimal pressure to ensure local prosperity.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions. Some Pakistani security analysts see China’s development plans as a mask for broader geopolitical ambitions. In Gwadar, they perceive Beijing as less interested in developing a transport link to Xinjiang or a commercial waystation to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf than eventually transforming the port into a military or naval base, another in a string of installations dotted across the Indian Ocean that affords Beijing the strategic initiative vis-à-vis regional rival India.

Regardless of China’s true intentions, the net result for locals is the same. Economic marginalization is stirring local dissent, which could lead to significant security risks. Balochistan’s insurgency has long rested on popular demands for greater political and economic autonomy. The failure to provide Gwadar the benefits of CPEC development is heightening hostility toward Islamabad and Beijing, and affording Baloch insurgents a chance to expand their outreach and recruit disgruntled locals. Since 2017, Baloch militants have already killed scores of Pakistanis employed on CPEC projects and future attacks might target Chinese construction workers or Chinese nationals living in Pakistan.

A Chance to Reverse Course

Instead of addressing the causes of this dissent, Pakistani authorities have opted to respond through crackdowns of anti-CPEC protests, an overbearing security presence, and harassment and intimidation of local residents. The best chances for the country’s stability – not to mention CPEC’s success in Gwadar and elsewhere – lie in giving provinces and communities a voice in shaping development projects.

In particular, the government should make greater efforts to consult communities and experts regarding the impact of development and reconsider the ongoing policy of rampant land expropriation. It should also put in place measures to ensure the employment of local labor on construction projects to ensure that they reap the dividends of outside investment. Chinese and Pakistani companies, too, ought to take similar measures to assess the risks associated with controversial development initiatives.

Whatever the result of Pakistan’s elections, the new parliament should seize the opportunities of a fresh mandate by informing a new government policy. That policy should have the well-being of Pakistani citizens at its heart, rather than treating it as expendable in the pursuit of mega-development.