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High Sea Showdown

History, blue ocean, and China.  We look at the high-seas showdown between China and its neighbors over the South China Sea and more.

Anti-Japan protesters shout slogans while marching outside Japanese Embassy with Chinese national flags and banners in Beijing, China, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012. One of the banners reads "Diaoyu Islands belong to China since 1372! " A group of Japanese activists swam ashore and raised flags early Sunday on one of a group of islands at the center of an escalating territorial dispute with China. (AP)

Anti-Japan protesters shout slogans while marching outside Japanese Embassy with Chinese national flags and banners in Beijing, China, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012. One of the banners reads “Diaoyu Islands belong to China since 1372! ” A group of Japanese activists swam ashore and raised flags early Sunday on one of a group of islands at the center of an escalating territorial dispute with China. (AP)

Way out across the Pacific, a long way from “legitimate rape” and American political campaigning, there’s a high stakes ocean real estate fight going on in the South China and East China Seas.  A string of impassioned quarrels over history and resources and sovereignty that could pull the United States onto dangerous terrain with the world’s rising superpower, China.

China makes wide claims over ocean turf and resources far from the mainland.  Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and more disagree.  And it is fired up right now.

This hour, On Point:  America, the Pacific, and the high seas showdown off China.

-Tom Ashbrook


Keith Bradsher, Hong Kong bureau chief for the New York Times.

Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Nong Hong, post-doctoral fellow, China Institute, University of Alberta.

Pek Koon Heng, professor of international relations at American University.

Graham Allison,  director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “Anti-Japanese protests spread across China over the weekend, and the landing of Japanese activists on a disputed island on Sunday sharply intensified tensions between the two countries.”

Wall Street Journal “Since World War II, despite the costly flare-ups in Korea and Vietnam, the United States has proved to be the essential guarantor of stability in the Asian-Pacific region, even as the power cycle shifted from Japan to the Soviet Union and most recently to China. The benefits of our involvement are one of the great success stories of American and Asian history, providing the so-called second tier countries in the region the opportunity to grow economically and to mature politically.”

Foreign Policy “This is more than mere posturing. In July, China’s East Sea Fleet conducted an exercise simulating an amphibious assault on the islands. China’s leaders are clearly thinking about the unthinkable. And with protesters taking to the streets to smash Japanese cars and attack sushi restaurants, their people may be behind them. So who would win the unlikely prospect of a clash of titans in the Pacific: China or Japan?”

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  • AC

    o good. i’m interested to learn about this…

  • Ray in VT

    I wonder if the show will also address the sabre rattling that the People’s Republic occasionally does regarding Taiwan, and wasn’t there an issue lately regarding some islands claimed by both China and the Philippines?

    China’s the big kid on the block.  Following centuries of relative weakness, they’ve got the military and economic might.  Perhaps they’re willing to use it to get what they want from their neighbors.

    • Don_B1

      They certainly seem willing to at least bluff that they will use it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000504390944 Elizabeth Curtiss

         They will claim it’s a bluff if it doesn’t work, but it will turn out to be a cat’s paw if the mouse lets down its guard. Obama made a good move with his  Asia-Pacific Shift.

  • Yar

    “So who would win the unlikely prospect of a clash of titans in the Pacific: China or Japan?”Such a naive question, wars are never won, only lost.  The “winner” is hated for generations, conflicts continue, minds change by force are not really changed.  
    The question should be: What would force these titans to war?  The answer is simple, to feed their population.  We are in for an unstable future because population is growing faster than the food supply.  Oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 2.6 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein.

    The more important question for the US is: What should we do to avoid war among these nations?  First, we must stop turning food into fuel.  Second, we must stop wasting both food and fuel.  
    2 percent of the world’s population cannot continue to consume 25 percent of the world resources and expect to keep its position.  China and Japan will settle our debt with grain.  See our role in this conflict?  

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       No one wins a war?  The winner is hated for generations?  You’ve forgotten World War II, I take it.

      If we grow the corn, we can do with it as we wish.  Haven’t we heard lots of talk about how unhealthy corn is?  Why not use it as fuel?  That will make us less dependent on another dangerous part of the world.

      • Yar

        No, I have not.  2.5 percent of the world population was lost in WW2.  There is still tension between China and Japan.  What would have happened if the investment made in war was instead invested in making the world sustainable?  Public transportation, living wages, universal healthcare, ending exploitation.  When we divide the world between us and them, we start wars, and destroy what our fathers’ built.  The US did not win WW2, we stopped an aggressor.   It is not the same, and it was at great costs.
        What we do with our privilege (resources) matters, if we don’t change, we invite war.  History has shown this time after time.  

        • Gregg Smith

          Do you believe things would have been peachy if we had just sat it out? I guess Stalin and Hitler wouldn’t have caused any trouble for humanity… other than the gazillion deaths the two were responsible for. Imperialistic Japan? No problem, leave them alone.

          So the Democrat Truman used nukes and ended it. Now Japan is one of our strongest allies.

          • Mouse_2012

            Stalin was a U.S. ally in WW2. Many deaths also occurred under Stalin when the U.S. was it’s ally.


            Worried that the Soviets would not be able to hold out, the United States and Great Britain promised aid to Joseph Stalin

          • Gregg Smith

            Yes, I understand.

          • Yar

            No, I did not say that at all.  What I am saying is when we make enemies, it lasts for generations. Our wasting of resources is making enemies. When the gap between rich and poor become too great societies break down.  Answering complexity with more complexity only creates bigger problems. WW1 lead to WW2, will WW2 lead to WW3?
             Why do you feel the need to re-justify our involvement in WW2, I said nothing to question our role. I am looking forward, we should quit wasting resources now, it leads to war, which is the most wasteful of all.  Invest in making the world sustainable, which means less population, and less consumption. The US has much work to do in reducing consumption.

          • Gregg Smith

            I am just pointing out the world of geo-politics has a mind of it’s own. It’s not so easy to say “let’s not fight”. 

          • Yar

            I did not say “lets not fight” I am saying our consumption increases the pressure to fight.  “To those who much is given, much is expected.”  We have a role to play to make the world more livable, not to make the world more divided.  We would quickly abandon the suburbs if they were the target of external attack, yet we won’t consider adding a dollar tax to gas to prevent an attack.  A dollar may save 10 or 1000 but the only way to prove it in not to spend it.  We need to change our way of life, it has effects across the world.  Your mom was correct, you should not waste food.

          • Gregg Smith

            I took your comment, “… wars are never won, only lost.  The “winner” is hated for generations, conflicts continue, minds change by force are not really changed” as an indication you were opposed to fighting. My bad.

            As to the rest of it, we won’t agree. My view is America is a blessing to the world which would be in heap big doo doo without us.

          • Gregg Smith

            What if we stopped buying ipads and Nikes? Would that reduction in consumption help the Chinese? 

            My mom used to tell me there were children starving in China if I didn’t finish my plate. But I knew they would be just as hungry no matter how much I ate.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

          The Allies won W.W. II.  Any victory comes at a cost, but if we hadn’t fought that war, the Axis powers would still be in control of vast territories.

          Using corn for ethanol isn’t causing anyone to die from starvation.

          • Don_B1

            Using corn for ethanol is demonstrably raising the price of corn, which is used by food processors like ADM in almost half of processed food purchased just in the U.S.

            The combination of reduced output and using almost half for ethanol will reduce corn exports greatly this year (there is no longer a great backlog of stored grain from previous years) and this will raise the cost of food worldwide, just as the reduction of Russian wheat two summers ago did. That reduction and the subsequent food cost increase in countries where food cost is NORMALLY between 1/4 and 1/2 of their income means that the use of corn for ethanol WILL cause people to starve.

          • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

             And that’s our responsibility how?  It’s not our job to feed the world.

        • Mouse_2012

          Great comment. Many forget that “war is the ultimate failure of diplomacy”  and the unintended consequences.

    • Don_B1

      If we don’t stop emitting CO2 from burning fossil fuels the resulting ocean acidification, under way right now, will greatly reduce the fish stock and the resulting overfishing will do the rest. That will mean over 2 billion people (or more depending on the rates of increased population and decreasing fish stock) will be looking for food from the sources we land agriculture dependent people use while the warming will be DECREASING the output of land agriculture (see the reduced corn, soy, etc. in the U.S. this and last summer and in Africa for the last decade or so).

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Allison is providing answers to your question.

      • Yar

        The powers got it wrong 11 out of 15 times.  Do you think we have anything to learn from history?  It is a shame that her discussion came so late in the program.  It was just starting to get interesting.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    The 1% in the US are so heavily vested in China, I expect the US would hem and haw a lot but actually do little to nothing.

    • Don_B1

      Whether it is just counter bluff or not, the possibility of U.S. action was increased by Obama’s stationing of Armed Services people in Australia last year or early this year.

    • Mouse_2012

      This was the case a few years back and gladly outsourced and gave Technology to Chinese  companies but as such companies are now under bidding many of these same 1% there now pressuring the U.S. government to do more to protect them.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    okinawa and many japanese islands were once part of china prior to the 1500s. Most were taken from them in the 1800s due to coercion since China was weak and vulnerable.

    the naval battle of 1895 culminated with China giving up territory and cash. Even though Japan was the aggressor, China paid close to 500 billion yen then. basically, Japan looted China and was rewarded for its aggression. 

    Do you think China does not remember WWII and 1895?

    It pays to be an aggressor. Ask the United States when it invaded Texas Mexico, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of California in the US-Mexican War. We were rewarded for being an imperialist nation in the 1800s.

    Btw. Japan still has not repaid  $$$ from her aggression in WWII to China.

    • http://www.facebook.com/julia.liu.50364 Julia Liu

      “Okinawa and many japanese islands were once part of china prior to the 1500s.”

      Really? I’m not so sure. 

      Okinawa is known as an independent state or states from historical records including chinese own ancient official documents such as 《宋史‧外國傳‧流求國》and 《元史‧外夷傳‧餾求》, translated to be

      “Ryukyu Kingdom, Chapter of Foreign Countries, Imperial History of Song Dynasty”

      “Ryukyu, Chapter of Foreign Indiginate People, Imperial History of Yuan Dynasty”

      Where “Ryukyu” is the ancient name for Okinawa.  

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Protestors in China and Vietnam?  Don’t you mean people who were ordered by their governments to say something to gullible western reporters?

  • Yar

    China has a sexually unbalanced society.  If you can’t start a family, start a war.  It is really quite simple, humans live for food, shelter and sex.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    oh, thanks to the United States and its secret negotiation to obtain Japanese biological warfare secrets, the Japanese emperor in WWII was left off the hook for his war crimes against humanity. 

    So, the United States have NO rights to reprimand Chinese aggression. If the emperor was prosecuted and imprisoned with his crime and Japan repaid its damage to china, this aggression would never have happened.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    RE: “The whole Taiwan question.”  The Republic of China (ROC), ironically based on the island known to the West as Taiwan, still lays claim to all of Mainland China & landlocked Mongolia.

    From Wikipedia: “Officially, the ROC government has claimed sovereignty over all of “China”, in a definition that includes mainland China and Mongolia, as well as Taiwan, via the ROC Constitution[21] but has not made retaking the mainland a political goal since 1992.[22] However, the government’s stance on whether “retaking” or “reuniting” with China is desired or whether Taiwan and China are separate countries or are regions of one country depends on which administration is in power.”

    These sovereignity disputes are ages old & hotter than ever. Is Taiwan the little island that could? We shall see.

  • Mouse_2012

    Clinton’s lying toad,

    I’m sure China believes Clinton as much as they believe in Joseph Smith

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    The 21st century is shaping up to be a major scramble for natural resources and renewed colonialism. It’s going to get ugly.

  • stellainma

    What is lost in the american expression of concerns over Chinese nationalism in this conflict is the fact that the Japanese gov is as much as, if not more, nationalist as China. Undoubtedly, Japanese colonialism/imperialism was one of the most barbaric of imperialisms and during its pre-WW2 expansion, the japanese empire illegally and coercively seized other East Asian nations’ land and resources. What is happening is a spill over from that barbaric era made possible by the Chinese ascendance thanks to their economic success. Should China alone be responsible for this conflict?

    • Mouse_2012

      Correct. The history of this conflict seems to be lacking both in the show and in our State Department’s responses.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000504390944 Elizabeth Curtiss

       Japan expands to acquire what it needs — adequate food and fuel — whereas China expands because it has a surplus to exercise and invest.

      • stellainma

        I’m afraid you are mistaken. first, it is illogical.I’m talking about what happened in history, and you are making a claim–a false one–about the present. Japan’s illicit takeover took place during the 30s. Also, it is facutally inaccurate. Japan, despite all its current problems, is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

        • Ray in VT

          Well, I think that there is a lot of truth in Elizabeth’s first statement.  Japan in the 1930s lacked many of the key natural resources needed for a modern industrial nation, such as the oil that they “acquired” by seizing Indonesia.  Expansion, and the creation of the “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere”, could provide them with the resources that they needed if they wanted to boot out the Western powers and supplant them atop the imperial food chain in the East.

          • stellainma

            well, I disagree. I suppose this is why some knowledge of east asian history is in order. back then (at the beginning of 20th C), Japan was the wealthiest and militarily mightiest country in E. Asia, which is why it dared to conquer the rest of Asia.

            At any rate, let me ask you to think of it this way. if the UK stole VT from the US in 1800s and now there is a dispute about it b/w the UK and the US, is it wrong for the US to make a claim to VT?

          • Ray in VT

            I have some knowledge of East Asian history.  It wasn’t my specialty as an undergraduate, but I took a number of courses and did my own reading as well.

            Japan was the strongest nation militarily, and the most Western, but they lacked some crucial natural resources at home, and I recall the reading that I did suggested that a part of the reason for their military aggression was driven by the desire to have control over those resources.

            Also, I’m not making any assertions about whether or not their land claims are legitimate, just that they are happening.

          • stellainma

            oh, BTW, the war to create the “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” was strictly to subjugate the rest of Asia for the japanese empire’s prosperity. also, japan identified with the West as the “nominal european.” The only reason why it wanted the West out was b/c it felt that it could occupy the role of the conqueror of E. Asia as the nominal West.

          • Ray in VT

            I think that that is pretty much in line with what I said.  I said that Japan wanted to take the West’s place at the top, and from what I know they envisioned a sort of mercantilist system whereby the natural resources would flow to them for refinement.  It wasn’t Asia for the Asians.  It was Asia for the Japanese.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    A big factor here is since China has veto power at the UN, whatever happens, China will be able to nullify the UN as a mitigating force in these conflicts. So if any action took place, it would have to be done directly as opposed to using the UN as a proxy.

    • Mouse_2012


      Is this not the case for U.S. and Russian actions as well in there respective “concerns” ? If the U.S. does do such otherside the UN would this not give Russia or even China the justification to do the same?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Filing a lawsuit won’t stop China from pressing for control of this region.

    • Mouse_2012

      What do you suggest the U.S. do? War? Threat of War?

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         A reminder that we’ll support our friends ought to be enough.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

    I lived in China for a few years a while ago and was always amused at how the maps in museums had been retroactively modified to include the islands in the South China Sea all the way back to a thousand or more years BC.

    In point of fact, it is only relatively recently that China has made any claims of sovereignty over these regions. 

  • Mouse_2012

    Didn’t the greeks get there but handed to them by the Romans?

    • Ray in VT

      Yes, but so did just about everyone else from the Punic wars to the Germanic invasions.  The Greeks had some real problems in terms of getting along with each other, but they had great wisdom.  We should also recall that

      “conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror”.

      • Don_B1

        That has been the way China has spread its influence also and why Chinese “foreigners” are resented throughout Southeast Asia.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000504390944 Elizabeth Curtiss

    My grandfather served in China with the State Department in the early 20th century, and I became an Asia scholar as the century closed. We had very different perspectives. He lived among and helped feed an intensely poor mass of humanity, struggling to break free of a dying imperial burden. I saw a nation confident it was ready to reclaim its own Manifest Destiny. Having conquered as far as it then could, and settled resulting borders to the west and north (Tibet, Mongolia, India), the Inner Kingdom now turned its attention to longstanding southern aspirations. Ask any Vietnamese and you will learn that this is not the first time China has tried to expand southward militarily. Malaysia, Japan, Korea — their names might as well be Lakota, Apache, Pueblo.

    When Nixon went to China, and in the resulting decades, people the age of my grandfather (and including my grandfather) were anxious to help “these poor Chinese masses” reclaim opportunities their imperial overloads had withheld. I always believed that once we helped them feed themselves and industrialize, they’d return to their unfinished business. I have no doubt they see us as hypocrites for trying to protect old claims of indigenous peoples when on our own continent we robbed and murdered without compunction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000504390944 Elizabeth Curtiss

    That horse has left the stable. All those jobs we sent them are the Trojan Horse we planted among ourselves.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JJPX5VQBBTUNFT5FZNYQJXNZUQ francis

    China has been bullying its neighboring countries in the Pacific.   I hope China implodes and gets what it deserves.  

  • Pingback: South & East China Sea disputes: On Point program with Tom Ashbrook | Lola Jane's World

  • Kevin

    The nationalistic sentiment is there but it is being voiced from outside the Central Politburo.  Are we seeing what happened to Japan before it became militaristic?

  • Pingback: Graham Allison on U.S.-China relations | Belfer In The News

  • perspectives009

    From what I’ve read in the comments, I get a general sense that many are, I wouldn’t say ‘siding with’ Japan, but rather, are definitely not supportive of China’s position in this conflict. I am by no means an elite in political or historical knowledge so what I’m going to say may be disputed greatly. I think a lot of Westerner’s dislike China on a political and ethical level almost as a reflex, and whenever a situation like this comes up we are quick to criticize China. Perhaps because of China’s communist status? Nevertheless, Japan and China have an unfriendly history, and from what I have read, the High Seas are historically and culturally China’s. I think this possessiveness should also be viewed from a socio-cultural perspective rather than through a purely economic and political stance. If I recall correctly, Japan committed some really nasty and inhumane crimes in China back in the 19th Century and WW2. From visiting experience, Chinese people still have strong tensions when it comes to the Japanese. Going to the war museum in Nanjing and seeing the photographic evidence of what the Japanese did, I found it surprising that such doings fuelled hatred and anger in myself. My personal opinion is that China isn’t always the “big kid on the block” or the “bully” in Asia. Looking back, I think Japan screwed China over pretty badly, and saying this, China was also ‘screwed over’ by Western countries too, such as the Eight-nation Alliance. Perhaps, these things played a prelude to the strong sense of Nationalism in Chinese society? Regarding the seas, I think China does not want to lose it to Japan because of the pre-existing tensions. I am aware of how China’s politics may have crossed boundaries here and there, but I am approaching this issue by not directing jumping on the  band wagon to criticize China. Personal opinions differ, and I don’t know, I think Japan should leave the seas as is, if they have any sense of guilt from looting China before? But then again, I don’t really think Japan has that conscience, I think globally, things like this are a stage for politics and economic debate. 

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