Friday, 29 November 2013

China at odds with Japan, US over new air zone

This week has seen a marked challenge to the US' decades-long hegemony over the Asia-Pacific region. On Saturday 23 November, China announced the creation of a new “air defence identification zone” in the East China Sea, which controversially overlaps with an air zone set out by Japan and covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Both Japan and the US are heavily opposed to the air zone and see it is a destabilising move in an already fraught maritime area dividing these two Asian neighbours.
Unannounced, the US flew two B52 bombers over the disputed Islands in defiance at the new Chinese air rules on Tuesday 26 November. The aircraft took off from the island of Guam, a US military outpost in the Pacific, as part of a routine defence exercise, without filing the flight plans with Chinese authorities, sending a clear signal that Washington is not prepared to accept any unilateral change to the status quo. China said that the entire flight was closely monitored and that aircraft that pass through the zone must obey its rules and declare their plans.
Beijing has told Tokyo that the flight information for all Japanese-chartered flights travelling through this air space must be filed with them in advance. Having firstly met the request, Japan's premier Shinzo Abe said shortly after the US bomber flight that Japan would not be doing so in future, saying instead that the zone was “invalid”.
Military muscles were flexed by both powers this week as tensions continue to mount. The day after the B52s flew across the East China Sea, the Japanese parliament passed a bill which enshrined a national security council, effectively handing over more control of the state military apparatus to Abe. On Wednesday 27 December, China's President Xi Jinping launched the country's Liaoning aircraft carrier into the South China Sea – another area where they are engaged in several maritime border disputes.
Relations between the second and third-largest economies in the world have been strained during the last year, as Japan has remained defiant of its territorial rights over islands in the East China Sea in the face of an increasingly robust foreign policy by China. Ships and aircraft from both sides have been involved in provocative military exercises in each other's back yards since Japan officially bought three of the islands from a private owner in September 2012.
It is believed the eight uninhabited islands, referred to as the Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands by Japan and China respectively, are located near potentially lucrative oil and gas reserves and strategic shipping lanes, as well as being situated in valuable fishing waters. The island's Exclusive Economic Zone would grant the controlling state sovereignty over these resources.
For further analysis on the claims by each side to these islands, please visit our border briefing page on the East China Sea.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Protests as Turkey erects border wall

On Thursday, thousands of Kurds protested against the construction of a wall separating the border towns of Nusaybin, on the Turkish side, and Al Qamishli, on the Syrian side, by Turkish authorities. The protesters have temporarily put a stop to preparatory building work while their grievances, concerning the division of their community, are aired. The demonstration has complicated the ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party as the conflict in Syria has spilled over into neighbouring countries.
The protest in Nusaybin, organised by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, was tolerated by Turkish police for most of the day, however, riot police later deployed tear gas as a sit-in got underway in the early evening, dispersing the majority of the crowd. BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas accused Turkey of siding with radical Islamist rebels against Kurdish groups seeking their own autonomous state in Syria, suggesting that the government desired to divide Syrian Kurds from their ethnic counterparts north of the border.
Ankara has justified the two-metre high wall on the grounds of “security”, arguing that it will prevent smuggling and the free movement of rebel fighters across the border, while denying its sponsorship of extremist groups and the existence of any sectarian agenda. Despite this denial, many residents living on the frontier zone joined in the protest, as they felt the wall would have an adverse effect on visiting family and friends living on both sides of the border. Questioning the Turkish government's explanation, Nusaybin's Mayor, Ayse Gökkan, asked: “Why do they not build walls further west, where rebel fighters and Al-Qaeda are allowed to cross the border freely?” Gökkan has since taken part in a hunger strike.
Turkey has absorbed close to half a million refugees from the conflict on its doorstep and continues to maintain its open-door policy to those fleeing the violence. The wall, seen as a temporary security measure, is set to span only a tiny section of the 560 mile border.

Monday, 11 November 2013

ICJ rules in Cambodia's favour

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced this morning that sovereignty over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple, on Cambodia's border with Thailand, should rest with Phnom Penh. Bangkok has been ordered to withdraw “ military or police forces or other guards or keepers” from the promontory of the 900 year-old UNESCO world heritage site, according to the ICJ's President, Judge Peter Tomka. Many hope the decision will see an end to the recent escalation of tensions between the two south east Asian neighbours, which saw Thai aircraft flying low over the territory on Saturday and nationalist groups saying that they would reject any finding of the ICJ.
Cambodia filed its application to the ICJ on 28 April 2011, requesting an interpretation of the Court's 1962 judgement, which ruled in favour of Cambodia, concerning the century-long border dispute over the promontory of the the Preah Vihear Temple in the Dangrek Mountains. In its 2011 application, Cambodia stressed the need for Thailand to withdraw its troops from the area, cease all military activity in the vicinity and refrain from any act that could aggravate the dispute, lest irreparable damage be done to relations between the two parties. Thailand refuted the claims that there was still a dispute and that these special provisions, regarding its military, be implemented.
The dispute had resurfaced in 2007, when Cambodia submitted an application to UNESCO to list the Temple as a World Heritage site. The application was subsequently withdrawn, following complaints from Bangkok, and was resubmitted, but with the area surrounding the Temple removed from potential site status. On 7 July 2008, the site was inscribed onto the World Heritage List with a “revised graphic plan”, excluding the area disputed by Bangkok and Phnom Penh. This decision led to several years of armed exchanges in and around the Khao Phra Viharn National Park, on Cambodia's northern border with Thailand.
The Temple has been the subject of belligerent political posturing by both parties since the late 19th century and has been occupied by both sides at various points during the 20th century. On 15 June 1962, the ICJ awarded possession of the Preah Vihear Temple to Cambodia, citing colonial maps from 1907, which clearly placed the Temple within Cambodian territory. These maps showing this demarcation were knowingly circulated by Thailand at the time, despite findings to the contrary by a bilateral boundary commission three years earlier. The area around the Temple was the only portion of the 803 km boundary that did not follow exactly the watershed line around the Dangrek Mountains, which “in a general way, constitutes the boundary between the two countries in this region”. This angered Thailand, who, nonetheless, reluctantly agreed to the ICJ verdict.