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China Moves Prompt Closer Ties Among Neighbors


FILE - Screen grab shows Chinese Coast Guard ship 46001 (L) chasing a Vietnamese vessel near the site of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's central coast.

FILE - Screen grab shows Chinese Coast Guard ship 46001 (L) chasing a Vietnamese vessel near the site of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's central coast.

The Philippines this week backed the Japanese prime minister's push for a broader military mandate - the latest move among China's maritime neighbors to unite against China's increasing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.

As Beijing continues to assert a vast territorial claim in the South China Sea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are strengthening their military and diplomatic bonds.

Ely Ratner, of the U.S.-based Center for a New American Security, says the three are overlooking historic conflicts with each other in reaction to China's sustained aggressive reach.

"There's no doubt that countries in the region are collectively spooked by what they're seeing as an increased pattern of Chinese assertiveness from the East China Sea down through the South China Sea," he said.

Regional Reactions

It's been a tense past two months. In May, China moved an oil rig into waters that Vietnam claims. A few weeks later, Vietnamese and Philippine troops spent a day socializing on a disputed island - neither asserting dominance, but both unified in their resistance to China's encroaching power.

Then, during a state visit to Japan earlier this week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino publicly supported Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plan to broaden the Japanese military mandate to allow Tokyo to aid allies who are attacked.

"Japan is a strategic partner of the Philippines," Aquino said. "It is thus incumbent upon us to have continuous dialogue as we jointly face the changing dynamics of our regional security environment."

To expand the military’s mandate, Abe must first get his party’s coalition partner New Komeito on board.

But nearly two-thirds of Japanese voters oppose a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution, according to a poll released in April by Japan's leading newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

“There is a problem I think Prime Minister Abe has in selling this to his own people, and then of course explaining it to the region,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Meanwhile Tokyo, along with the United States, has pledged to help Vietnam and the Philippines upgrade their maritime patrol ships.

No Backing Down

But China shows no signs of backing down. At meeting in Myanmar in May, Defense Minister Chang Wanquan told regional counterparts his country wants a negotiated solution in the South China Sea, but multilateralism can't solve the problem.

And that position isn't likely to change, according to Glaser.

"The Chinese believe that other nations are so economically dependent on China that these other nations will not directly confront China or not do so for a long period and at the end of the day will accommodate to Chinese interests so the Chinese think that they have time on their side," she said.

Ratner says Beijing may be miscalculating.

"I think people often think, 'Well, war isn't possible in Asia or conflict isn't possible because these economies are so interdependent,’" he said. "But when it comes to these passionate political issues and nationalism, often those considerations get thrown out the door."

After all, Ratner noted, Germany and England were vital trading partners before World War I.

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