How to Kill the 'Asian Century'

By Robert Manning
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There are ample precedents of joint development of resources. There is an agreement among claimants in the Arctic. In East Asia, Thailand and Malaysia have joint oil-and-gas development accord and there is a similar treaty between Australia and East Timor.

And not least, there is a joint-development arrangement reached in 2008 to exploit oil and gas between China and Japan in the area around the disputed uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku islets. Beijing and Tokyo agreed to explore jointly four gas fields in the East China Sea and halt development in other contested parts of the regions. Both sides agreed to conduct joint surveys, with equal investment in an area north of the Chunxiao/Shirakaba gas field and south of the Longjing/Asunaro gas field. However, China began to develop the Tianwaitian/Kashi gas field unilaterally, launching a protest from Japan in January 2009. That contentious action, followed by a 2010 clash between a Chinese fishing boat and the Japanese Coast Guard put the agreement on hold.

East Asia is rife with speculation about how the new governments that have assumed power in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing will impact the territorial disputes. The sheer increase in maritime traffic in the to-and-fro of surveillance ships in the disputed waters and air patrol suggests 2013 could see at least a few naval skirmishes. In an optimistic sign, Japanese Prime Minister Shintaro Abe, an ardent nationalist, quickly dispatched a senior envoy to Seoul with which Japan has been at loggerheads over territorial dispute to reassure the new government in Seoul led by Park Geun-hye and to mend fences.

Sino-Japanese relations have been particularly tense, with China sending daily maritime agency ships around the Senkakus and some Japanese threatening to send Air Defense Forces to fire warning shots. In his previous incarnation as prime minister in 2006, Abe made a special effort to ease Chinese concerns upon taking office. With a shaky Japanese economy as his priority and Upper House elections in July, many expect Abe to minimize confrontation - at least in the short run. But in the face of public outrage over China's provocative tactics Abe and an avidly nationalist cabinet might stir things up.

The United States has called on both sides to reduce tensions and a team of senior security and diplomatic officials left today to consult Japanese and South Korean allies.

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At the end of the day, the web of overlapping territorial claims in Asia is unlikely to produce an energy bonanza for anyone. It's a case of "winner take little." Unless the region can find a way to resolve or at least manage the underlying nationalist passions that drive what are otherwise minor disputes over largely uninhabited islets and shoals, the oft-heralded Asian Century will be shortlived.

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Robert A. Manning served as a senior counselor (2001-2004) and member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004-2008. He is currently a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Yale Global

(AP Photo)


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