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ASIA & the PACIFIC: A spat in the Spratlys

In Japan, in May 2014, the ground rules shifted slightly, but encouragingly, for a number of the regions’ countries. Prime Minister Abe announced proposals that would allow Japanese armed forces, for the first time since 1945, to come to the defence of their allies – including the United States (US) should they come under attack. The move was seen as a direct response to Chinese efforts to increase – for the most part with little subtlety – its hegemony not only over the South China Sea (see below), but also over the Senkaku islands known as the Diaoyu islands in China. China had voiced its protests at what it described as ‘militarism’, which given the near hysteria that had developed in both countries, amounted to the pot calling the kettle black. The Japanese proposals also enabled it to upgrade its co-operation with the US forces in the region, for long the traditional guarantors of a regional pax Americana.

That a group of eight uninhabited islands and rocks, amounting to 7 square km, in the East China Sea might trigger a potentially calamitous regional war was to be marvelled at. But this was not about the rocks, so much as about what could be claimed and gained by controlling them. Important shipping lanes, strategic importance, rich fishing grounds and possible oil and gas reserves all came in to play. In the South China Sea, disputes involved no less than six Asian countries: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, China, Taiwan and Brunei all claimed sovereignty over the Spratly Islands. And virtually all their claims were refuted by China. Vietnam had reached agreements with several of its neighbours to conduct joint exploration for oil and natural gas resources in the region. All the disputes with China remained unresolved. In May 2014, tensions between China and Vietnam flared up, following the incursion of a Chinese oil rig that Vietnam claimed was planning to illegally drill into Vietnam’s continental shelf. In September 2014, Vietnam and India agreed to expand their joint upstream oil and gas activities in the contested waters of the South China Sea. This, despite China’s objections to what it rightly saw as a smart tactical move by Vietnam.

Despite the unstoppable rise and accumulation of power by Chinese premier Xi Jinping, Chinese foreign policy did rather look as though it was stretched to its limits. In late September 2014 the influential London weekly, The Economist featured a front cover of Mr Xi (and a hundred identical masks of his face) captioned: ‘Xi who must be obeyed.’ Two weeks later, it ran another Chinese themed cover featuring a demonstrator in Hong Kong entitled: The Party v the People – Hong Kong and the struggle for the future of China. The article will not have made happy reading for Mr Xi. The opening paragraph pointed out that of the ‘ten bloodiest conflicts two had begun in Europe and half ‘took place or originated in China.’

Mr Xi’s government had underestimated the determination of the Hong Kong demonstrators to see Beijing respect the terms it signed up to when the territory was handed over to China by Great Britain in 1997. The Hong Kong protests, with their high domestic and international visibility, went further than the territory itself. They struck a strong chord with millions of Chinese, angry not just about the manifest levels of corruption they could see for themselves, but also, and by extension, the inadequate provision of affordable housing, accessible education and employment prospects. Restlessness, said the Economist, was spreading to the Chinese mainland. Watch out, Mr Xi?<\p>

In South-east Asia, restlessness was also in the air – at least in Thailand. In May 2014, at three o’clock in the morning, martial law was declared by the country’s army. The army, lead by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, at first seemed to be at pains to say that this was not a coup d’état. But the army, Thailand’s most powerful and well organised body, ruling as the National Council for Peace and Order, wasted little time in making its presence felt. In his televised address to the nation, General Prayuth cited the number of dead (28) and wounded (700) as an important reason for the army’s intervention. The coup was thought to have the support of the Royal Family.<\p>

Chinese Hong Kong was not the only place were demonstrations had made their mark. Faced with the street protests which had been persistent for some seven months, Thailand’s intractable political deadlock between the red-shirted supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the yellow shirted opposition meant that something had to give. After a failed attempt at mediation between the two factions, the military intervention hardly came as a surprise. Two days before the coup, the government had been forced to declare martial law. The coup that followed was felt by most observers to favour the protestors rather than those still supporting the ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, deposed by Thailand’s Constitutional Court on 7 May. Yingluck was considered by a majority of Thais to be little more than a front for her exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, himself ousted in the 2006 military coup. Whether Yingluck would join her brother was uncertain – she already faced charges arising from her time, and conduct, as Prime Minister. This was Thailand’s twelfth successful coup (there had been a further six failed attempts) since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

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