By: Clement Nocos
With recently sluggish economic growth, unstable political situations, and rising nationalist riots and sentiments in China and Japan, both countries have become involved in an escalating territorial dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. Where does Canada end up in this potential stand off between the two Asia-Pacific powers? Canada, having increasingly closer economic ties with both countries, should have a vested interest in this dispute. However, our current position on the conflict is so far non-existent, with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird preferring bilateral talks between Tokyo and Beijing in order to sort this issue out much like Canada does with its own territorial disputes between the US and Denmark (Power and Politics clip at 6:58). What Baird forgets here is that, unlike Chinese-Japanese relations that have had to deal with such historic atrocities as the “Pacific War”, Canada does not have a long-running blood feud with the US (okay, save for those War of 1812 commercials and hockey) and Denmark over territory. It’s hard for Tokyo and Beijing to have a conversation that goes past WWII apologies.
Furthermore, Canadian-American-Danish foreign affairs remain stable while the expected departure of China’s General Secretary Hu Jintao in November, the unexplained public absences by his presumptive successor Xi Jinping, and nationalist right-wing challenges to Japanese PM Yoshihiko Noda’s government are helping to destabilize Chinese-Japanese relations. Nationalist protests in both China and Japan have seen the boycott and destruction of affiliated businesses, attacks on nationals of both countries, as well as effigy and flag burnings.
Japanese and Chinese ships patrol the waters surrounding the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. Any misstep by both parties could intensify the conflict. (KYODO/REUTERS)
China has been flexing its military and economic muscle in recent months, provoking territorial disputes with Japan and neighbouring ASEAN member-states over islands and their surrounding potential undersea resources. Chinese ships are on constant patrol around the Senkakus and other disputed islands. Japanese businesses in China have had to shut down operations due to Chinese public resentment. The Japanese government is being pushed by the far-right to abandon Constitution Article 9 that prevents the JSDF from becoming an aggressive offensive force. America’s recent WTO complaint against Chinese trade violations and the US military’s obligation to defend Japan under the 1960 Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty add more volatility to the situation. Conflict is brewing in the East China Sea that could very well disrupt Canadian interests in the region, yet the Canadian Government seems much more concerned with Iran, though it is less interconnected to that region.
China and Japan are Canada’s 3rd and 4th largest export markets respectively, behind the US and the EU. The Canadian government has an obviously vested interest in China, with PM Harper’s recent trade missions to China and the looming CNOOC deal. Canada’s economic relationship with China is only expected to deepen and accelerate. The current Canadian Government is trying desperately to ram through approval of the CNOOC deal and to ensure that pipeline infrastructure to the Pacific gateway is complete which would strengthen trade links with the Chinese, whilst ignoring the Chinese Governments spate of human rights abuses. Japan, an important trading partner, is a diplomatic ally, regional power, and a liberal democracy to boot. With such huge investment in China and with such important ties to Japan, it is almost surprising that this dispute has been so far under-the-radar.
Any sort of further escalation in this conflict threatens Canada’s stakes in the Asia-Pacific region, yet there is hardly any anxiety or action by DFAIT and the rest of the Canadian Government. A naval conflict between China and Japan, however small, would cause a tremendous disruption to a combined approximate total of 10% for all of Canada’s international trade. For a government whose talking points consist of economic growth and prosperity, this is too high a price to ignore. Despite the decades-long decline of its diplomatic corps and its internationally recognized status as a peacekeeping nation, Canada cannot remain passive and should take more of an active role in the Senkaku Islands dispute. With a few of our own maritime disputes, Canada is well experienced in this type of situation and would perform well as a mediator in the conflict. It is not only a dire situation in which Canada needs to secure its economic interests in the region, but also an opportunity to return to its internationally recognized role as peacemaker (as if it had one in the first place). Apologies for the cynicism, but leave Iran for the Americans.