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Australia Needs To Mediate Tensions In The Asia-Pacific

04/04/2016 6:07 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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South China Sea, February 15, 2010 - The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68), the guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin (CG-65), the guided-missile destroyers USS Sampson (DDG-102) and USS Pinckney (DDG-91), and the guided-missile frigate USS Rentz (FFG-46) operate in formation in the South China Sea. The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is conducting operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility.

Japan is dispatching a submarine to Sydney in a bid to win over Australia's contract to purchase maritime arms to boost defence around the Asia-Pacific region. Tensions are high in the Asia-Pacific region as China becomes more assertive over its claims on the South China Sea, an action that has alarmed surrounding nations as well as nations that have interests in the region such as the United States. If we are going to achieve peace, prosperity and mutual understanding in the Asia-Pacific region, is brute force the way to diffusing the tensions in the volatile region?

Japan sent a Soryu submarine to impress the Australians with their high-tech maritime defence as they try to wrestle a deal from competitors like France and Germany. Four hundred and fifty Japanese personnel are expected to take part in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force, claiming the military exercise will improve tactical skills.

For many observers, this is not just a business deal for the Japanese, but a chance to flaunt its submarines and arsenal power; to tell the region and the world Japan is, once again, a serious player. History has told us this is not the first time that Japan, under the patronage of the US, is building up its military in response to perceived Chinese aggression. Knowing that China and Japan have deep, almost ingrained hatred towards each other since the 19th Century, the US is playing a dangerous game in provoking more tensions in the region.

In the eyes of outsiders, there is probably nothing particularly valuable in the East China Sea. For China and Japan, it is about national pride. In addition to history and war reparations, a serious strain in China-Japan relations, there is the Diaoyu Islands/Senkaku Islands dispute.

The source of the tension stems from the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), when the then Qing Government was forced to forfeit Taiwan and "all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Taiwan" under the Shimonoseki Treaty. Due to the Allied victory in the Second World War, these islands were returned to China after Japan agreed to surrender unconditionally. However, to respond to the communist threat from the newly established People's Republic of China, the US decided to change the rules to strengthen its ally Japan's position to counter against growing communist power in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, the USA and Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Conference to allow Japan to patrol and exercise control of these islands -- an agreement that China does not recognise and thus have carried on tensions until this day.

In addition to the Diaoyu Islands/Senkaku Islands dispute, a number of Asia-Pacific nations such as China, Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are contesting claims over the Paracel, Scarborough and Spratley Islands. These rival claims, coupled with external influence from superpowers such as the USA, are encouraging contenders to turn to militarisation as a way to achieve their objectives.

With China's growing assertion in the region, its smaller Asian neighbours are fretful of their sovereignty and China's growing influence in the region. Historically, China had been the dominating cultural and political force across the region. With its vast economy, geography and growing military expenditure, the Chinese are becoming more confident with their territorial claims. The US, who is eager to reaffirm its role in the Asia-Pacific region as demonstrated by a number of speeches from President Barack Obama, staunchly backs Japan and other nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines with its military build-up.

If we can learn one thing from history, it should be that using military might is counterproductive against a growing power like China, who has momentum to become one of the next global superpowers. With Western powers like the US and even Australia joining the chorus of other Asian countries to challenge China's claims, this would only provoke Beijing to possibly take drastic actions. Forums like ASEAN, APEC and East Asia Summit have attempted to address these issues, but have been futile since there were no intentions of peaceful resolutions. So is there a role for Australia to play?

A militarising Asia-Pacific is detrimental to Australia's economic and geopolitical interests. Unlike many countries around the world, Australia enjoys productive bilateral relationships with China, the US and Japan. Given Australia's geographical location and bicultural understanding, there is a leadership role for Australia to play to pacify militarisation and regional conflict. Rather than taking sides, Australia should get on the diplomatic front foot to facilitate dialogues and discussions with all interested parties to avoid armed conflict. Australia should not diminish its diplomatic influence in the region by taking sides on these disputes. In fact, what we should be doing is serving as a bridge for these much-needed discussions to take place so tensions can be defused.

To end centuries of hatred and division between two regional giants would be a challenge for diplomacy but I am confident Australia is up to the task.

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