15.11.2014 Author: Vladimir Terehov

What lies behind the Sino-Japanese scandal on poaching of red coral

23222The term “red (noble) coral” that denotes a high-demand (and therefore expensive) raw material in the jewellery industry, in the last month or two suddenly entered the list of words most used by leading political publications in Japan.

We are talking about Japanese accusations that Chinese fishermen are poaching red coral in the archipelagos near Izu and Ogasawara – ridges of volcanic islands that stretch for more than a thousand kilometres to the south of Tokyo, and are under administrative control of the capital prefecture of Japan.

For crew and owners of Chinese vessels, the extraction of red coral is apparently a very lucrative business, the yield of which is due to the sale of extracted raw materials to Chinese craftsmen engaged in manufacturing expensive trinkets.

The acuteness of the situation can be seen by the rhetoric of representatives of the capital prefecture and Japan’s State Border Service that Chinese vessels will not be allowed to take shelter in the coves of individual islands should a typhoon overtake the poachers. Calls are being made about the need to severely tighten laws for their punishment.

And here a suspicion is raised that the new problem in Sino-Japanese relations (which are far from simple in any case) is not entirely about the health of the valuable living corals.

As in the well-known problems over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, in the situation with “poaching” in the area of the Izu and Ogasawara archipelagos it is not difficult to discern the political and strategic geography.

The fact is that the Izu and Ogasawara archipelagos represent the northern reach of the so-called second island chain in the Pacific Ocean, starting from the Japanese island of Honshu and extending to New Guinea in the Southern Hemisphere. It also includes the Mariana Islands and Palau archipelago.

Monitoring the second island chain is crucial to controlling the strategic situation for the entirety of the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, the main area of the Pacific theatre in World War II were the main islands of this chain.

Therefore after only 20 years the US entrusted its closest ally in the region (Japan) with its northern part, and on the Mariana Islands and Palau archipelago quasi independent state institutions were established. The main US military base in the western Pacific, Guam is located on the eponymous largest island of the Mariana Ridge, which is part of the United States under special conditions.

And now is the time to mention the name of the person that is associated with the current implementation of the strategic aspects of the situation in the northern parts of the second island chain.

This is Admiral Liu Huaqing (died 2011), who studied in the fifties in the USSR, and is now considered the father of the modern Chinese Navy. His views on the role of the navy in the politics and military strategy of the leading world powers were influenced by Admiral S.G. Gorshkov, a proponent of the development of the Soviet blue water fleet.

It was Liu Huaqing who in the early 1980s persuaded Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping of the need to move away from the concept of a coastal fleet towards the construction of a blue water navy.

He is also the originator of the concept of spatial spreading of the activity of the future Chinese Navy over the entire Pacific Ocean area. That is, far to the east of the first island chain, including the Ryukyu Archipelago (owned by Japan), Taiwan, and the Malay Archipelago, which is part of a number of major states, including Indonesia.

Admiral Liu Huaqing is also associated with the frequent expert speculation on the subject of the division between China and the US spheres of influence in the Pacific along the second island chain. But so far there is no indication of possible US consent to such a hypothetical proposal by the People’s Republic of China. If it ever existed and was brought to the attention of the American leadership in any form at all.

Furthermore, this concept does not take into account the factor of Japan’s “normalisation” and its transformation into a political power at a regional, if not global, level. And Japan in any case would not be satisfied with this kind of (again we emphasize, hypothetical) “behind the scenes” transaction.

The long-standing tensions between China and Japan, a key US ally, in connection with disputes over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are due not only (and perhaps not so much) to the “hydrocarbon” factor, but to the fact that they are one of the important parts of the first island chain.

It can be seen as the first chain of redoubts of the marine Maginot Line, with which in the pre-war period attempts can be made to block the exit of the Chinese navy to the expanses of the Pacific Ocean. The second part of this chain can be regarded as the Izu and Ogasawara archipelagos.

Even today, the Chinese Navy increasingly appreciates the strength of both these chains of redoubts during naval exercises, when groups of Chinese warships pass through the (open in peacetime) straits between the islands of the Ryukyu archipelago.

It should be noted that the timing of the Japanese-Chinese “coral” scandal is poor. The fact is that since the spring of this year both sides have undertaken reciprocal steps in order to simply resume formal contacts, interrupted in the summer of 2012 because of the aggravated situation around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The platform of the next APEC forum in Beijing was supposed to be used to this effect.

In this regard, there is another reason to make some remarks on the subject of the overall plan regarding the effectiveness of managing the various government agencies. Especially by those who have access to the international arena.

The image of the state with multiple arms, a player at the table of the global politics, can be portrayed as the Hindu god Shiva. But in order to fully comply with this deity, the actions of government agencies, being the arms, may appear chaotic only to the uninitiated. In fact, these movements have always followed a certain logic, which is the product of a carefully designed strategy of state development, to be comprehensive, publicly discussed, and adopted by an overwhelming majority. It is from this angle that we must consider the recent flair up of the Japanese-Chinese red coral poaching scandal.

Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on the Asia-Pacific region,  exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: