‘Rise of nationalistic pressure intensifies air zone row’

South Korean Army Surion helicopters firing flares during a joint live firing drill between South Korea and the US at the Seungjin Fire Training Field in Pocheon, 65 km northeast of Seoul, on Aug 28, 2015.
South Korean Army Surion helicopters firing flares during a joint live firing drill between South Korea and the US at the Seungjin Fire Training Field in Pocheon, 65 km northeast of Seoul, on Aug 28, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

Decades ago, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping could ask his Japanese counterpart to put the issue of disputed territory in the East China Sea aside to “move on with real business”.

But, lamented Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam on Friday, the rise of nationalistic pressure in Japan, China, the United States and other countries has escalated the dispute and caused moves that are not “dictated by logic”.

Last week, China established an air defence identification zone that covers the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and overlaps with Japan’s and South Korea’s own air zones. The US promptly flew two B-52 bombers into the zone without notifying China as demanded. 

Mr Shanmugam, speaking at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, said the entire suite of developments reflected a worrying underlying trend of nationalism-propelled foreign policies in these countries. 

“Nationalism can be a force for good, (but) it can also impact on logic when it comes to foreign policy,” he said. 

“No leader of any of these countries (wants to) be seen to be giving up on territorial sovereignty – not in China, not in Japan, certainly not in the US, not in Korea.”

Domestic nationalism has been growing stronger in each of the major players, he noted. In the US, “China-bashing” has become very fashionable, while China has “a huge amount of politics” in the form of “five hundred million netizens pushing and putting pressure on the leadership”. The same goes for Japan, Mr Shanmugam added. 

“So you can say logically that China, Japan, South Korea and the US really need not get into this,” he said. “There are so many ways in which the situation can be sorted out.”

But, instead, with the nationalistic pressure from their populations, a “serious risk of miscalculation” has arisen, he noted.

This escalating situation is worrying for Singapore, he said.

“We are a major air hub in South-east Asia. We are a major sea port. The freedom of navigation, freedom of air rights – these are fundamental to us and our interests.”