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China, Rare Earths and Technological Edge

Introduction

By Jurii (http://images-of-elements.com/praseodymium.php) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Praseodymium, one of the light rare earth elements

A sign at the entrance of China’s Baotou, Inner Mongolia Pioneering Rare Earth Hi-Tech Zone quotes Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 claim: “There is oil in the Middle East, but there is rare earth in China.” The rare earth elements (REE) are a group of 17 chemically similar metallic elements occurring in the Earth’s crust that are becoming increasingly integral to the production of products ranging from smart phones and LED light bulbs to wind turbines and cruise missiles. Since the 1980s, REE mining and processing has increasingly moved to China. Due to factors such as cheaper labor and less stringent environmental regulations, China has been able to produce the elements at two-thirds the cost of non-Chinese producers. As a result, it now produces over 90% of the world’s REEs. China has also been moving from a supplier of unfinished REEs to a manufacturer of high-end REE products and it believes that mastering high-end REE technology will not only help ensure its safety given REE’s many defense applications, but could also allow it to leapfrog the US and other countries in the production, for instance, of green technologies.

China’s monopoly of REEs came to a head in 2008 when it began restricting the amount of unfinished REEs that it exported while increasing REE export taxes and removing REE VAT rebates. International concern was further increased in 2010 when China was believed to have implemented an unofficial REE export embargo against Japan for two months and the US and the EU for two weeks. A 2012 WTO complaint filed against China by the US, the EU and Japan claimed that the effect of these policies has meant that non-Chinese producers of REE products pay 31% more for their REEs than their Chinese competitors. The US, the EU and Japan also say that Chinese practices are placing pressure on foreign manufacturers to relocate their operations to China in order to minimize the impacts of rising costs and shrinking supplies, as China does not restrict or tax the export of REEs in manufactured products. China counters that its policies are necessary to improve the real environmental degradation that its lax standards have caused and to conserve its finite REE resources.

Rare Earth Elements and the History of their Development

The REEs are a group of 17 chemically similar metallic elements including the 15 lanthanides as well as scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium are grouped with the rare earths as they share similar chemical and physical properties. Despite their name, the REEs– with the exception of the radioactive promethium which is currently synthesized in labs – are quite abundant in the Earth’s crust, although their crustal abundance varies significantly from place to place. The “rare” earth name comes instead from the rarity of the minerals from which they were originally derived. It also comes from the fact that the elements are rarely found in concentrations that are viable to mine.

The REEs are broadly divided into light rare earth elements (LREE) – lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, and samarium (atomic numbers 57-62 on the periodic table)  and heavy rare earth elements (HREE) – gadolinium,  promethium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium (atomic numbers 64-71). Scandium (atomic number 21) and yttrium (atomic number 39) are usually grouped with the LREEs. This division is somewhat random; sometimes the REEs are divided between light, middle and heavy. LREEs are more abundant than HREEs.

Although approximately 200 minerals are known to contain REEs, most REEs are mined from the minerals bastnaesite, monazite and xenotime. While these minerals usually contain the full range of the elements, either LREEs or HREEs tend to dominate one mineral or the other. For instance, bastnaesite, the most commercially productive source for REEs, tends to house a high percentage of LREEs and a small percentage of HREEs. Monazite, the second most common mineral used as a rare earth ore, also contains more LREEs than HREEs, although it typically has a higher concentration of HREEs than bastnaesite.  Xenotime, the third most important rare earth element ore, holds the highest ratios of HREEs. HREEs can also be found concentrated in some soils, absorbed in the form of ions. Bastnaesite, monazite and xenotime all contain traces of the radioactive elements thorium, although the amount varies between the minerals and between ore deposits. The presence of the radioactive element makes REE mining and waste management more difficult.

The first discovery of rare earth materials was made in the late 1800s in Sweden. Given that rare earths occur together and share similar chemical properties, it was a further 150 years until all the rare earth elements were isolated and identified. The last rare earth element to be discovered was the radioactive promethium which was found as a result of nuclear fission research carried out during World War II. In nature, promethium can only be found in trace amounts as it is highly unstable and has a half-life of 17.7 years.

Production of Rare Earth Elements

The periodic table

Until 1948, the majority of rare earths were produced in India and Brazil, followed by South Africa in the 1950s, and the Mountain Pass Mine in California from the 1960s to the 1980s. Since the 1980s, REE mining and processing, and the production of many REE products has moved to China. Between 1990 and 2000, for instance, China increased its REE production from 16,000 to 73,000 metric tons while non-Chinese producers saw their output decline from 44,000 tons to 16,000 tons. In 2009, China produced 129,000 tons while the output from all other countries dropped to 3,000 tons.

China now dominates the REE industry because it can produce REEs and REE products less expensively and with more purity than its competition. Its low cost production is the result of many factors including inexpensive labor, lower environmental standards and a REE industry which has historically been poorly regulated. It is estimated that China’s lower environmental standards have enabled it to produce rare earths at roughly a third the price of its international competitors. China has also made significant investments in REE mining and processing techniques which are now paying off in greater efficiencies. China also mines the majority of their REE as a by-product of their iron ore and other mineral mining, which also reduces their cost basis.

Where Global Rare Earth Resources are Found

The U.S. Geographical Society estimated that in 2008 China held approximately 57.7% of the world REE reserve, the Commonwealth of Independent States (which includes Russia and many former members of the Soviet Union) 13.6%, the US 9.1%, Australia 3.8%, Brazil 0.05%, India 0.84%, Malaysia 0.02% and other countries 14.9%. Additionally, the British journal Nature Geoscience reported scientists led by Yasuhiro Kato of the University of Tokyo, have found huge deposits of REEs in sea mud at 78 locations in international waters east and west of Hawaii, and east of Tahiti in French Polynesia. Japanese scientists have also identified REEs off island of Minamitorishima, an isolated Japanese coral atoll in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

In China, REEs have been found in 21 of China’s provinces and Autonomous Regions: Fujian, Gansu, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Jilin, Liaoning, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Xinjiang, Yunnan and Zhejiang. In general, China’s REE reserves are distributed in a light north, heavy south pattern. An estimated 75% to 90% of China’s REE output is in LREEs; 50% to -60% of its LREEs comes from its Banyan Obo mine in Inner Mongolia, and another 25% to 30% comes from mines in Sichuan Province. China’s remaining output is HREEs sourced primarily from its ion-adsorption clays located in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi.Southern China’s ion-adsorption clays are currently one of the most important concentrations of heavy HREEs in the world. Importantly, these clays have extremely low levels of radioactive elements.

Mining and Processing of Rare Earth Elements

Most REEs are mined either by digging in open pits or in underground mines. The ore is then crushed, heated and treated with various chemicals in order to separate first the bastnaesite, monazite and xenotime, and then to separate the REE from the bastnaesite, monazite and xenotime. In order to ensure a high market value, REE needs to be of high purity. This is a difficult process because REEs share such similar chemical properties. Each REE has its own unique extraction steps and refinement processes, and often these elements need to be reprocessed in order to achieve the ideal purity. Once separated, the REEs are in the form of oxides which are then made into metals. It takes an average of 10 days to go from mining to the production of rare earth oxides. China currently leads the world in REE separation processing technology.  Chinese companies can produce REEs of 99.9999% purity compared with French companies at 99.99% purity and Japanese at 99.9% purity.

Outside of China, companies in the US, France, Russia and Japan can complete some of the refining steps, but only China has the industrial capacity to complete the entire REE refinement process for all the elements. Mining companies such as US Molycorp and Australian Lynas which extract REEs outside of China currently find it necessary for technological and economical  reasons to ship their minerals to China for processing despite their respective efforts to move further down the REE processing chain.

Separating REE from bastnaesite, monazite and xenotime is more difficult than separating REE from the ion-adsorption soils. In Southern China, most of its REEs are found in clay deposits. Not only is it easier to separate REEs from the clay compared with the hard minerals, but it is also usually easier to access the clays in the first place. The ion-adsorption clays are near the crust’s surface, and generally require little drilling or blasting to remove. China’s Jiangxi South Rare Earth Hi-Tech Company has reduced the costs of the clay processing further by pioneering in-situ mining. This method involves drilling holes directly in the clay deposits, pumping in ammonium sulphate or salt-based solutions which remove 90% of the REE from the clay and then collecting the resulting liquid from pipes drilled in at lower levels. The liquid is then pumped into tanks where it is treated with further chemicals, filtered and roasted to produce rare earth oxides.

Uses of Rare Earths Elements

Rare earths are essential in the production of X-ray machines

REEs are essential to many products that are fundamental to our modern life. REEs can be found in products as diverse as TVs, plasma screen technologies, microwave filters, ear phones, self-cleaning ovens, flint lighters and computer memories. Because REEs are extremely effective in absorbing ultraviolet light, REEs are used in glass bottles, sunglasses, and camera lenses. Because they allow for the development of powerful permanent magnets – which differ from electrical magnets in that they produce their own magnetic field – REEs create improved magnetic performance in smaller sizes. They are, thus, important in miniaturization technology, and are a key reason why laptops, cell phones and smart pads are becoming increasingly lighter and smaller.

Permanent neodymium-iron-boron magnets are also fundamental to many green technologies, especially wind turbines. Their superior magnetic strength means that they increase the amount of electricity that a wind turbine can produce. REE magnets also have the advantage that they retain more magnetism when heated. These qualities make them ideally suited for the production of hybrid cars. The Toyota Prius, for instance, contains 1 kg of neodymium in each of its electric motors. REE magnets also improve the energy efficiency of many appliances and cooling systems. REE magnets have been shown to reduce the power consumption of air conditioning systems by as much as 50%, and have led to the development of more environmentally friendly refrigeration methods. Energy efficient lighting such as the fluorescent lamp and LEDs are also big users of REEs.

REEs are also employed in other green technology applications. For instance, REEs are essential to the automotive catalytic converter whose job it is to convert pollutants in engine exhaust gases into non-toxic compounds. They also used in oil refineries to process heavy crude oil into lighter gas, jet fuel and petrol. They are also proving essential to the development of solid oxide fuel cells – a low-pollution technology which electrochemically generates electricity at high efficiencies – and other fuel cells which are being developed as power generators for zero emissions electric vehicles.

Besides, the green technology industry, REEs are also found in a wide range of industrial applications. For instance, REEs are employed in many aspects of nuclear energy production because of their ability to absorb neutrons while remaining stable at high temperatures. They are also found in ceramics, glass coloring and in the colors displayed on TV, computer and hand-held screens. They help paint pigment deflect ultraviolet light which makes them less likely to fade. Most finished glass products, such as mirrors, have been shined by REE concentrates and oxides. REEs are also a critical component in the creation of super-alloys or super-metals which are a class of heat resistant alloys used in the aerospace and power industries, particularly in gas turbine engines. REEs are also elemental to the technology that allows for the solid state storage of hydrogen.

REEs are also found in many medical technologies including x-rays and PET scan detectors. REEs not only improve the performance of MRI machines, but they also enable the physical internal scanning space of the machines to be wider, which serves to reduce feelings of claustrophobia for sick patients. Medical lasers produced with REEs are used in the cosmetic industry to remove pigmentation and scarring on skin, as well as in many other surgical procedures. There are also increasingly used in dentistry to remove tooth decay.

REES are crucial for the defense industry. They can be found in disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, and command and control centers, and in radar systems and in reactive armor. They are key to the production of precision guided munitions, helping to guide the direction of the missile once it is launched. They are fundamental to lasers employed in enemy mine detection equipment, underwater mines and other countermeasure weapons systems. REEs are also found in components used in military communication networks including satellite, radar and sonar. They are also used in optical equipment and speakers.

In 2011, the US Geological Society estimated that the global use of rare earths broke down as follows: catalysts 47%, metallurgical applications and alloys 24%, glass polishing and ceramics 15%, permanent magnets 9%, computer monitors 19%, radar, television and x-ray machines 5%.

Environmental Consequences of Rare Earth Mining

The manufacture of REEs poses significant environmental hazards because of the large amounts of chemicals used in processing and because the processing waste often contains toxic gases and traces of the radioactive thorium. In northern China’s Bayan Obo  (Baiyun Ebo) mine in Inner Mongolia, for instance, REEs are mined and then transported 120km south to Baotou to be processed. Dozens of new factories have been built around Baotou’s processing facilities in what has been called Baotou’s Pioneering Rare Earth Hi-Tech Development Zone. A coal-fuelled power station supplies electricity to Baotou’s large and growing industrial complex.

The Yellow River

The Chinese Society of Rare Earths estimated that for every ton of rare earth oxide it produces in Baotou, China generates up to 12,000m³ of waste gas containing dust concentrates, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, and about 2000 tons of mine tailings. Tailings are the ground materials left over once the REEs have been removed from the ore. In northern China, these tailings contain traces of radioactive thorium. In addition, it is estimated that all factories and processing facilities in the Rare Earth Hi-Tech Development Zone create approximately 10 million tons of all types of waste water every year.  Much of this waste water along with an estimated 7-8 million annual tons of mine tailings are dumped into what has grown into an approximately 11km² waste impoundment lake without being effectively treated. A 2006 Chinese report undertaken by local authorities found that the level of thorium in soil near the lake was 36 times higher than in the soil in other areas of Baotou. From the lake, the chemical and radioactive waste has seeped into the ground water. The waste has also found its way into the Yellow River which passes to the south of Baotou before continuing another 1300 miles to the Yellow Sea. The Yellow River is subsequently used as a water supply for a large concentration of China’s population, including the residents of Beijing and Tianjin.

Around Baotou, most fish in the Yellow River have died. Agriculture has also been severely affected as lake wastewater has contaminated irrigation water supplies and the soil. Local farmers say that since the 1980s, fruit trees have either yielded no fruit or that the fruit they do grow is small and foul-smelling. Vegetable plants have stopped producing and many livestock in the area have become ill and died.

Residents inhaling the vapors and drinking the contaminated water have noticed higher incidents of diabetes, osteoporosis, respiratory diseases, leukemia and other cancers, skin and eye irritations, irritation to the gastrointestinal tract, black lung disease and kidney damage.

China’s southern REE mining and processing operations have also caused significant environmental degradation. The in-situ extraction method, which was hoped to be less environmentally damaging, has also resulted in reduced or eliminated crop yields and in fish dying in the rivers in the areas around which it is being mined. One issue in the south has been the extensive presence of illegal mines which are particularly prone to releasing toxic waste into the general water supply.

Until recently, China has never had firm pollutant discharge standards for the rare earth industry. Additionally, it poorly enforces the regulations that do exist. This lack of stringent environmental regulation and enforcement has meant that China’s REE industry produces REEs at roughly a third the price of its international competitors. While some Chinese REE companies have tried to improve their mining processes to make them more environmentally friendly, many have chosen to keep their environmental costs to a minimum in order to maintain a competitive edge in the market. In addition, as the government owns the land on which the factories lie, companies have little incentive to protect it. Additionally, China’s still-developing legal structure means that people and companies cannot easily be held accountable through the country’s judicial system. In Western countries, if employees or residents become ill due to unsafe production methods, those responsible would likely face due process which could result imprisonment and fines. This is not the case in China, unless victims have the support of the government. Yet the government often has a stake in the REE production process which acts as an incentive for the REE processing to continue untouched.

Characteristics of China’s Rare Earth Industry before Government Reform

Fluorescent light bulbs require rare earths

Starting in 2000, China’s government began to re-evaluate its REE strategy in the light of its rapid development, the poor profitability of its rare-earth producers and the rapidly growing demand for REEs worldwide. While its achievements in the REE field since 1978 are undeniable, the government has become increasingly concerned about a number of issues. These issues were outlined in Situation and Policies of China’s Rare Earth Industry published by the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China in June 2012 and included: severe ecological damage to the environment, excessive exploitation of REE resources, poor profitability of the REE industry causing what it considered to be a severe divergence between the price and the value of REEs, and the illegal mining and sale of REEs.

While the environmental degradation that has been caused by China’s REE production is quite widely known, part of the purpose of the China’s REE report was to inform on the other challenges that China faces in managing its REE resources. Specifically, China found that 50 years of aggressive mining of its REE resources have significantly reduced its reserves. In Baotou, for instance, the report stated that only about one third of the original volume of REE resources was left in its principal mines. In its ion-adsorption clays, the reserve extraction ratio – the remaining supplies of REE in years – has declined from 50 years of remaining resources 20 years ago to 15 years of REE resources today.

While China publishes the country’s REE data yearly, these reports are not available to foreign researchers. Independently verifying the PRC’s calculation of its reserve levels has thus been difficult. For instance,

s China’s Situation and Policies of China’s Rare Earth Industry paper calculated that China holds 23% of the world’s reserves, while the 2008 US Geological study calculated that China held 58% and a 2011 British Geological Survey Rare Earth Elements paper calculated that China held 44%. That said, there can be no doubt that China has seen a rapid depletion of REE reserves in the last three decades.

China has also expressed concern about the poor profitability of the REE industry. Historically, the Chinese REE industry has been characterized by numerous, relatively small-scale enterprises, particularly in the south, which often engage in cutthroat competition. This has often meant that REE producers have often struggled to maintain profitability. Yet, as many local governments have relied on REE producers to provide employment and revenue, they have continued to encourage local production even it means exceeding national production targets. As a result, China feels that it REE resources have been sold at prices which do not reflect their real value or take into account environmental costs. To support this argument, China cites the fact that between 2000 and 2010 the price of rare earth products increased by 2150%, while the prices of gold, copper and iron all increased by in excess of 4300%.

China’s REE has also been plagued by illegal mining and smuggling. The report states, that from 2006 to 2008, statistics collected from foreign customs offices were 35%, 59% and 36% higher than the volumes that China officially exported over this time period. In 2008, it was estimated that approximately 29,000 tons of rare earth materials were smuggled out of the country, representing an estimated one-third of total REE exports. In 2014, it was estimated that illicit sales rose to 40% of all REE production or as much as 40,000 tons. Illicit REE materials are often hidden as steel composites, then reverse-engineered out when they reach the customer’s home country. It is believed that Japan is the largest importer of illicit REE materials, and may get as much as 20% of its REEs from China’s black market. Smuggling hurts China’s rare earth industry both by depressing prices, more quickly depleting REE resources and by increasing environmental damage as smugglers usually pay scant attention to pollution management.

Rapid Increase in Domestic Demand for REE Products

China has also seen a rapid increase in domestic demand for REEs, and it expects this demand to continue to increase in the future. In 2000, for instance, Chinese REE consumption was about 19,000 metric tons while non-Chinese usage was about 72,000 tons. By 2009 Chinese REE consumption had reached about 73,000 tons while other usage had declined to 59,000 tons. China uses more REEs today as its REE industry is moving higher up the manufacturing value chain. For instance, its 1987 production of products such as catalysts, magnets, phosphors, and polishing powder represented only about 1% of the total REE that it consumed. By 2008, the production of these products accounted for about 53% of the REEs used in China. Going forward, China expects its REE use in the new material technologies to grow faster than in its other traditional industrial sectors.

As an example, in July 2008, China had approximately 600 million mobile phone users; by November 2012 China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology estimated that China’s mobile phone owners had exceeded one billion. Similarly, in 1998, the United States, Europe and Japan produced 90% of the world’s permanent neodymium-iron-boron magnets; today China manufactures 76% of the world’s total. In 2009, China produced 12,000 gigawatts of wind power; by 2015, China aims to have 100 gigawatts of on-grid wind power generating capacity, and to be generating 190 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of wind power annually.

China’s Reform of its Rare Earth Industry

As early as 1990, the Chinese government deemed REEs to be a strategic mineral critical to China’s long-term political, economic and military power and began restricting foreign investors from mining rare earth, or from participating in smelting and separating except in joint ventures  with Chinese firms. By 2000, Chinese scientists and military experts were calling for even greater controls over its REEs. In 2005, Xu Guangxian, China’s leading REE scientist, argued that at the current rate of extraction the Bayan Obo mine would be depleted in 35 years.

As a result, the Chinese government began to implement a number of initiatives designed to reform the industry. Laws regarding REE mining, production and waste management were reviewed, and efforts have since been made to improve enforcement. Additionally, in 2005, the government eliminated the value-added tax rebates for REEs, and taxes on the export of unimproved REEs were raised. The government also reduced the number of REE mining and processing licenses issued. In 2006, 47 domestic REE producers and 12 Sino-foreign rare Earth producers were licensed to export rare earth products from China. By 2011, that number had dropped to 22 domestic REE producers and 9 Chinese-foreign joint venture REE producers. It has also begun to stockpile REE materials with the goal of reaching reserves of 30,000 to 55,000 tons of rare earth concentrates.

Additionally, it created the 2009-2015 Plan for Developing the Rare Earth Industry, and established the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, consisting of 150 members whose aim is to develop a fully integrated REE sector. Part and parcel of this, it has divided the country into large REE districts: Jiangxi, Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, and Guangxi in the South; Inner Mongolia and Shandong in the North; and Sichuan in the West. Between 2009 and 2015, the government expects Inner Mongolia and Sichuan to be primarily responsible for producing LREE with additional capacity coming from Shandong as needed. HREEs will be produced in Jiangxi, Guangdong and Fujian. Increased inspections by government officials will be carried out in order to ensure that facilities are not exceeding national quotas and that mining and manufacturing are meeting environmental regulations.

Since January 2014, China has pressed aggressively ahead with its efforts to consolidate the REE industry under six large state owned enterprises (SOE)including Inner Mongolia Baotou Iron and Steel Group, China Minmetals Corporaion, Aluminum Corporation of China (Chinalco), Guangdong Rare Earth Group, Xiamen Tungsten, and Ganzhou Rare Earth Group. These SOEs will control the industry by geographic region. An estimated 300 smaller, independent REE producers have been forced to shut down or  to merge  with  the SOEs. These SOEs will invest in all aspects of the rare earth industry chain. Currently, these six companies control 94% of China’s RE resources,  75% of its mines and  60% of the smelting and separating capacity. After consolidation, the six SOEs are expected to have complete control over these sectors. These  conglomerates will be supported by financial subsidies, tax breaks, and other form of government  investments, and will be encouraged  to expand their expertise  in areas such as REE recycling.

China continues to view the REE industry as of strategic importance to the country. Its goal is to have a significant market share of the entire REE supply chain from mining, smelting and separating to manufacture of high-end rare earth technologies. China’s dominance in the middle aspects of the REE supply chain – transforming mined materials into useful ingredients – enables China to draw in related domestic and multinational businesses that depend on the REE materials. This in turn increases China’s importance to supply chains in everything from mobile phones to wind turbines.

Since January 2014, Beijing has also stepped up its campaign against illegal mining. It has forced smaller, wildcat producers to close, and is now conducting helicopter searches in areas where illegal mines are purported to be operating. It is also going after the gangs who are running them as well as local government officials who turn a blind eye.

Beijing is also working to stamp out illegal production by larger, licensed companies which avoid production quotas by exporting RRE under ambiguous labels such as “iron alloy”.  New export license paperwork for the big six will be more onerous and exacting. Beijing is also trying to implement a RE supply chain trace-ability system.

Since July 2014, China has push ahead with its plans to grow  its domestic REE stockpiles.  China plans to use it stockpiles to ensure  adequate resource  supply  in the future, especially in light of growing domestic demand. It will also use it stockpiles as a mechanism  to support REE  pricing.

Export Quotas

Chinese ships loaded with rare earth minerals for export

The government also began to implement quotas on the amount of REEs that it allowed to leave the country. From the Chinese perspective, quotas felt appropriate as foreign countries, particularly the United States and Japan, were seen to be taking advantage of China’s cheap, environmentally-destructive REEs while maintaining strategic stockpiles in their own un-dug mines. Quotas would also help ensure that the Chinese had plenty of REEs for their domestic needs. Historically, separate export quotas have been set for domestic REE producers and for Sino-foreign joint venture REE producers. Between 2005 and 2007, the government authorized domestic REE producers to export 40,000 metric tons and Chinese-foreign joint ventures to export 16,000 metric tons. In 2008 and 2009, China reduced the domestic quota by 21.6% and 2.5% respectively while holding the Chinese-foreign joint venture quota steady. By 2010, China’s overall REE export quota was reduced an additional 37.1%, this time impacting both domestic and Sino-foreign joint venture producers alike.

The government’s new policies are specifically designed to restrain the export of unprocessed REEs, as no quotas have been placed on REEs exported in finished products. Part of the reason for this is that the government wants to encourage foreign REE manufacturers to relocate their production facilities to China, particularly to Baotou’s Pioneering Rare Earth Hi-Tech Development Zone.  It is estimated that approximately 50 foreign companies are already operating within Baotou’s industrial complex. From the Chinese perspective, this would allow them access to new technology and would generate jobs for its citizens. Non-Chinese consumers of REEs have criticized this policy saying that it is pressuring them to relocate to China in order to stay cost competitive. This in turn could put their proprietary REE technology at risk, and it would continue international dependence on China’s REE industry.

Chinese Suspension of Rare Earth Exports

On September 7th, 2010, a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japan Coast Guard vessel near to the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputed islands, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, and in China as the Diaoyu Islands. The islands are administered by Japan but are also claimed by China and Taiwan. The Japanese subsequently detained the captain, causing a major diplomatic dispute between the two countries.  Despite repeated demands by the Chinese government, the Japanese refused to release the captain, saying that instead his case would be handled by the Japanese courts. In retaliation, the Chinese canceled official ministerial Sino-Japanese meetings, and revoked an invitation for 1000 youths to attend the Shanghai World Expo. (Lin, 2010) Although denied by the Chinese government, on September 21st, it is widely believed that the Chinese also orchestrated an unofficial halt of REE exports to Japan by having its custom agencies prevent the export of REEs, though this has recently been questioned in academic studies, particularly in light of the fact that shipments to Europe and the US were also halted the following month, and given that the Japanese government had expressed grievances over the rare earths issue as early as August 18th. Beijing claimed instead that the export stoppage was a spontaneous, independent demonstration of support by Chinese REE exporters and custom agents. Regardless of its origin, the embargo has enabled China to exert political pressure on Japan. The unofficial nature of the embargo also made it more difficult to challenge in the World Trade Organization (WTO) which bans most unilateral export stoppages.  On September 24th, Japan released the Chinese captain, with the Chief Prosecutor citing “Japan’s national interests”.

By mid-October 2010, China was also blocking some shipments to the United States and Europe after the Obama administration opened an investigation into whether China was violating free-trade rules with its green energy policies including its restrictions on REEs. China resumed shipments to the U.S. and Europe at the end of October, but did not resume shipments to Japan until the November 24th. Part of its decision to resume shipments to Japan might have been due to the fact that many Chinese assembly factories, employing hundreds of workers, were running low on Japanese-made components when suppliers began to face shortages of some of the REEs needed in their manufacture.

Consolidating the Industry and Ending Illegal Mining and Smuggling

Since 2006, the government has stepped up its efforts to shut down illegal mines in the provinces of Guangdong, Jiangxi and Sichuan. Over the last two years, China has investigated and rectified 600 cases of illegal mining, has identified an additional hundred cases against which further action will be taken, and has closed 13 mines and 76 processing facilities. Similarly, in 2011, China launched a campaign to crack down on REE smuggling, retrieving 769 tons of smuggled REE metals and prosecuting 23 criminal suspects in eight cases.

China has also been urging its REE producers to merge together. Ultimately, the government envisions that the REE industry will be eventually controlled by a few, state owned enterprises. Surviving Chinese producers have seen advantages to this consolidation strategy as it has helped to reduce unnecessary competition and increase profitability. For instance, Dingnan Dahua New Materials Co., Ganxian Hongjin Rare Earths Co. Ltd, Minmetals Nonferrous Metals Co. Ltd have all joined together to form Minmetals Ganzhou Rare Earth Co. Ltd to process REEs in Ganshou, Jiangxi Province. Their operations are expected to slowly subsume the majority of the production of the 88 smaller REE producers that have historically been operating in the area.

Improving Environmental Regulation

Rare earths are crucial for wind turbines

China also plans to implement stricter environmental standards. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has now set discharge standards for six types of atmospheric pollutants and for 14 different types of water pollutants. China will aim for its new REE facilities to be built to ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 certificate standard. It may also force its dirty mining and processing facilities to halt operations until they are also able to secure the ISO accreditation. The ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 are internationally recognized accreditations that look at how a product is produced rather than the product itself. The ISO 14000 standards help organizations establish procedures that minimize negative effects to the environment. If China enforces its tougher environmental standards, it is estimated that it could add between $145 and $220 to the production costs of every ton of REE products. These higher costs would significantly erode China’s cost advantage in the industry.

Additionally, China intends to increase the recycling rate of both REEs in discarded electronic products as well as recycling an estimated 12.6 million tons of REE oxides that had been deposited in its Baotou tailings pond. Currently there are no cost-effective ways to recycle rare earth elements from old equipment such as computers, electric motors and cell phones. Similarly, technology to extract residue REEs in tailings ponds is also in need of further development. China is also working on technology that will reduce the amount of REEs that are flushed into tailings ponds in the first place.

China’s Rare Earth Industry Research and Investment

As China considers its REE industry to be of critical strategic importance, it is heavily investing in REE research and development. It hopes breakthroughs in REE technology will help ensure its national security, and could enable China to leap-frog the West to lead in the development of many new advanced technologies such as those found in the rapidly emerging environmental sector. Indeed, in 1999 President Jiang Zemin noted that if China could master REE technology, its REE resource advantage could then help lead China to economic superiority.

Much of China’s REE investment has been funneled through the State Key Laboratory of Rare Earth Materials Chemistry and Applications, affiliated with Peking University in Beijing, and the State Key Laboratory of Rare Earth Resource Utilization, affiliated with the Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry which is run under the direction of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Between the two labs, there are approximately 70 faculty members, 35 professors and 75 graduate students dedicated to REE research. Additionally, China also conducts REE research through the Baotou Research Institute in the General Research Institute for Nonferrous Metals. Each of these institutions run complementary but independent research into the efficient and environmentally friendly mining and processing of REEs, the development of technology employing REE materials, the recycling of REEs from already existing products and the reclamation of REE materials in its extensive waste ponds.

China is not only investing in REE domestically, it is also purchasing stakes in rare earths natural resources abroad. For instance, China has purchased a 25% date in Arafura Resources Ltd, an Australian Rare Earth developer.

World Response to the Reform of China’s Rare Earth Industry – WTO filing

In March 2012, the United States, European Union, and Japan filed a complaint with the WTO against China’s REE trade practices in response to export restrictions, restrictions in export licensing, higher export taxes, and the withdrawal of the 16% refund of value-added tax on exports of unimproved REEs. They argued that the effect of these policies has been that non-Chinese producers of REE products pay 31% more for their REE materials than their Chinese competitors.  The US, EU and Japan are also challenging aspects of the allocation and administration of export quotas, export licenses and the manipulation of export prices. They contend that Beijing aims to satisfy domestic REE demand first, and to control the international price of REEs abroad. They also say that Chinese practices are placing pressure on foreign manufacturers to relocate their operations to China in order to minimize the impacts of rising costs and shrinking supplies. It is expected that the complaint will take between one and three years to resolve.

WTO ruled against China's REE export restrictions

WTO ruled against China’s REE export restrictions

China has countered that its policies are intended to improve the environmental standards of its REE mining and processing facilities as well as to promote the long-term economic sustainability of its REE resources. It has rejected a call for the establishment of a WTO panel. China has also countered that foreign suppliers have not complained of China dumping low-cost REEs as they previously had with China’s export of low-priced steel and textiles.

The US, EU and Japan feel that a WTO ruling made in January 2012 supports their case. In that ruling, the WTO decided that price and quantity controls primarily targeting foreign entities were not a reasonable implementation of a resource conservation policy. It also stated that trade restriction measures for the purpose of environmental protection can only be applied in conjunction with restraints on domestic production or consumption.

In June 2014 the WTO ruled against China and in August 2014 China lost its appeal. The WTO stated that China’s efforts conserve its limited REE resources and to protect its environment by restricting foreign access to REE tungsten and molybdenum through export duties, export quotas, minimum export pricing requirements and additional requirements and procedures constitute a breach of WTO rules. Instead the WTO found that the China’s REE restrictions were designed to achieve industrial policy goals rather than REE resource conservation or environmental protection. The WTO ruled this because no measures were put in place to restrict domestic access to REE supplies. Instead the export restrictions gave domestic companies preferential access to REEs at prices below that available to foreign customers.

World Response to the Reform of China’s Rare Earth Industry – Developing New Rare Earth Sources

Car production could be affected by rare earth shortages

Many governments and companies around the world are also beginning to develop new REE sources, now feasible given the higher REE prices which have resulted from increased REE demand and China’s export restrictions. The Australian company Lynas Corporation, for instance, has invested in an $800 million processing plant located on Malaysia’s East Coast. Once fully operational, Lynas’s Malaysian processing plant is slated to become one of the largest REE processing plants in the world. Yet, the opening of the plant has been plagued by protests from Malaysian activists who worry about its environmental implications. The plant is located on reclaimed swampland just 12 miles from Kuantan, a city of 600,000 people. A particular worry is that the plant’s toxic wastewater, containing chemicals and low levels of thorium, will seep into the groundwater, and that its storage ponds could become vulnerable to the monsoons that inundate the swampy coastline each autumn. Currently, Mitsubishi Chemical is investing $100 million to clean up its Bukit Merah REE processing site which it was forced to close in 1992 when local residents began complaining of leukemia and other ailments tied to thorium contamination. This environmental contamination has caused Malaysian activists to demand greater environmental regulation for all future RE processing facilities located on its soil.

In California, near Death Valley, Molycorp Minerals has invested $781 million in the modernization and expansion of its RE mining and manufacturing facilities that were shuttered in 2002 when it was unable to produce REEs at prices which could compete with Chinese producers. Molycorp aims for its newly refurbished Mount Pass facility to be one of the most technologically advanced, energy efficient and environmentally friendly REE processing operations in the world. By the end of 2013, Molycorp expects Mountain Pass to be producing 40,000 metric tons of REEs annually. As the US currently consumes between 15,000 and 18,000 metric tons of rare earth oxides each year, this would mean that the US would turn into an exporter of REE products in the near future.

Mines are also under consideration in Canada, Australia, South Africa, Greenland, Mongolia, Vietnam and India. In 2009, Japan signed a contract with Vietnam to invest in a rare earth mine that will produce solely for Japanese vehicle manufacturers. The problem is even if these new mines and accompanying processing plants were given the go-ahead, it could still take between 3 and 10 years, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars, before these new projects would become fully operational. Others are investing more heavily in the manufacturing of high-end REE products outside of China. Japan’s Hitachi Metals Company, for instance, is investing in a permanent magnet factory in China Grove, North Carolina instead of locating it in China as it had originally envisioned.

A concern for those investing in new REE mining and processing locations is that China could increase production again driving down REE prices just as their projects come on line, once again making non-Chinese mining and processing facilities uneconomical. Ironically, a WTO judgment in favor of the US, the EU and Japan could have this effect by forcing them to withdraw export restrictions which would once again flood the market with Chinese REE product. To protect against this, some non-Chinese scientists and industrialists have called for their governments to provide federal support in the form of loan guarantees and other assistance. Others argue that the rapidly growing demand for REEs should help maintain prices, even in the event of a significant increase in Chinese REE production.

World Response to the Reform of China’s Rare Earth Industry – Other Initiatives

International consumers of China’s REEs are also taking other steps to become independent from Chinese supplies. As a short term stop-gap, countries such as Japan and South Korea already have strategic stockpiles of rare earth metals. Countries are also increasing research into REE substitutes and REE recycling.

Trends for the Future

Rare earth mining is certain to be an important part of China’s future economy

China’s REE industry continues to grow at a strong clip. According to the Industrial Minerals Company of Australia, China’s REE annual output is forecasted to rise from 105,000 tons in 2011 to approximately 130,000 tons by 2016.

China considers the development of REE technologies a national priority. To support this objective, it will continue to invest heavily in research and development in all aspects of REE production from improved mining efficiency to the development of cutting-edge REE technologies.  It will also continue to invest in technologies that will allow it to reclaim REEs from its tailing ponds and to recycle REEs from discarded electronic products.

China should be able to have substantially greater influence over REE’s supply and the pricing. To some extent this will offset its inability to control supply and price by export quotas and by other trade restrictions now ruled to be illegal by the WTO. China will also continue to build domestic stockpiles.

The financial and academic resources China is investing in basic REE research are unparalleled anywhere in the world. Similarly, no other country has identified the manufacturing of REE technologies as a national objective and is pursuing it as single-mindedly. Given China’s significant level of naturally occurring REE reserves, its destination as a low-cost manufacturing base, and its heavy research and investment in all aspects of the REE sector, it can be expected that China will continue to rapidly consolidate its already strong foothold in the manufacture of many of the REE technologies. It is likely it will dominate the production of many of these technologies in the future.

Rising REE prices and aggressive Chinese REE policies have caused non-Chinese REE miners and manufacturers to seek alternative REE sources and alternative locations to produce their REE components. Over the next 10 years, it can be expected that new REE mining and processing sources will come on line, allowing international competitors to claw back some unfinished REE market share. In particular, US Molycorp and Australian Lynas both have brought REE mines on stream. Similarly, international REE producers, wary of the Chinese subsuming their technology, will continue to seek alternative, cost-effective places to manufacture. That said, they will struggle to compete against China’s advantages.

Sino-Japanese Relations: In the Shadow of History

An Overview

There can be no doubt that China and Japan are the giants of East Asia, both in economic and political terms. The bilateral relationship is, therefore, of great importance to both the region and the wider world. Despite a mainly cordial relationship over two thousand years of known interaction, Sino-Japanese relations have been complex and difficult for over a century. After a brutal invasion and occupation of the Chinese mainland during its expansive war of the 1930s and 1940s, Japan was defeated and found itself firmly in the anti-Communist bloc during the Cold War. A thaw in the 1970s, driven by the Chinese split with the Soviets led to the normalization of diplomatic relations but the Chinese and Japanese never truly reconciled this history. As a result, the question of history remains one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Sino-Japanese relationship. Compounding this emotional problem is a series of territorial disputes in the East China Sea, most notably around the Diaoyu (in Chinese) or Senkaku (in Japanese) islands. There are also ground for optimism; China has been Japan’s largest trading partner since 2007 and the two countries have worked together to promote regional cooperation and low level institutionalization. Nevertheless, the difficult shared history casts a constant shadow over the relationship.

The Historical Relationship

China’s relationship with Japan has a long and complex history, with interaction between the two cultures stretching back over at least two millennia. There can be no doubt that much of Japanese culture has its roots in that which it borrowed from the Chinese. This is most notable in the written form of Japanese, which uses both Chinese characters and two other scripts that are derived from written Chinese (though the oral language is entirely distinct from Mandarin). The other major similarity lies in philosophy and religion; the adoption of Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which were learned through interaction with the Chinese over many centuries, is still clearly evident in modern Japan. This adoption of aspects of Chinese culture took place across several of China’s dynastic periods, during which interaction was predominantly cordial with the Japanese paying tribute to the Chinese emperors without ever really becoming a “vassal state” in the way that many other areas of East Asia did during this time.

The relatively cordial interaction was brought to an end during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868) during which it effectively closed itself to dealings with other states. The end of this period coincided with several of China’s military defeats to Western powers, including the Opium Wars, which led to various parts of China becoming “concessions”, effectively miniature colonies within China. These defeats were part of the long decline of China’s final dynasty, the Qing, and Japan, like several Western powers, sought to take advantage of the chaos and confusion that ensued. After the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, which had initially been fought over control of Korea, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, under the terms of which Japan occupied Taiwan and the Penghu Islands. This defeat is considered by many Chinese to have been a huge psychological blow to the nation. After millennia of perceived Chinese superiority in the region, just a few short decades had seen China’s military humiliation at the hands of various “barbarians” from outside of East Asia and now at the hands of the Japanese, over whom the Chinese had always considered themselves to be both culturally and militarily superior.

However, by far the most significant conflict between the two powers, both in terms of the shutterstock_2646972 resizednumber of deaths and the continuing impact on the bilateral relationship, was the invasion of China by Japan that occurred in the 1930s. After first colonising Manchuria, in the Northeast of China, Japanese forces went on to occupy almost half of Chinese territory, committing widespread atrocities along the way. The most notorious of these atrocities was the Nanjing Massacre, a six-week orgy of violence and destruction during which as many as 300,000 Chinese, many of them civilians, were killed. Almost as notorious was the work of Unit 731, a Japanese research unit that conducted chemical testing on live Chinese prisoners of war. The occupation, including the colonisation of Manchuria, lasted a total of fourteen years, only coming to an end with Japan’s defeat in 1945.

With the dawning of the Cold War era, the PRC and Japan did not normalise relations until 1972, following Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing. During the negotiations to establish mutual diplomatic recognition the Chinese agreed to forgo any war reparations or compensation from Japan for its wartime atrocities. For the remainder of the 1970s the two enjoyed a warm relationship, culminating in the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 and, following China’s decision to embark on market reform, the initiation of a series of low-interest loans (frequently referred to as “Yen loans”) from Japan to China to fund development of industry and infrastructure. While never explicitly acknowledged as such by either party, these were widely considered to be in lieu of war reparations.

The “History Issue”

Despite the apparent thaw in relations it is widely acknowledged that the reconciliation between China and Japan was only ever at a superficial level. This is evidenced by the CHEN WS / Shutterstock.comrecurrence of what has come to be termed “the history issue” in the relationship. Though the countries normalized relations in 1972, the history issue did not rear its head until the early 1980s. An apparent revision of Japan’s history textbooks in the early 1980s, which seemed to downplay Japan’s invasion of China, sparked an angry response from China at both the societal and political levels. Though it transpired that this was a misunderstanding caused by reporting errors in the Japanese media, the damage had been done and this issue recurs each time Japan’s Education Ministry approves a set of history textbooks, normally every four years. In 2001 and 2005, this issue caused widespread anger in China when a book was approved that apparently downplayed the Nanjing Massacre and referred to the invasion of China has merely an “advance”. What is rarely understood in China is that the textbooks in question are produced by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a very narrowly focused right wing group that attracts little support in the wider Japanese society, and that they only appear on a list of books approved to be used, rather than being the set text. As a result, only a handful of Japanese schools have adopted these books with a reported 0.03% of Junior High School students actually studying them, a figure that would have been much lower were it not for the campaign group issuing free copies to schools for disabled students. Nevertheless, the approval sparked angry demonstrations across China with protest marches attracting in excess of ten thousand in several different cities and violent attacks on Japanese business interests and the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Though some reports at the time suggested that the Chinese government played a role in organizing and inspiring these protests, later research showed this not to be the only driving force behind the outpouring.
shutterstock_87269803Another particularly sensitive matter is Yasukuni Shrine, a highly controversial Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors all of Japan’s war dead. Under Shinto beliefs it is believed to be the resting place for the kami (loosely translated as souls) of all those who have died fighting for the Emperor of Japan since the shrine’s inception in the 1860s. This includes Class A war criminals that were convicted after Japan’s occupation of China of war crimes. Most notorious among these is Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister. After the Class A war criminals were enshrined in 1978 in a secret ceremony that was revealed a year later, the Emperor refused to visit the shrine again until his death a decade later. His successor has continued the policy of staying away in order not to offend Japan’s neighboring states. However, there have been several high profile visitors that have caused consternation in China (and other East Asian countries, most notable South Korea). In the early 1980s, it was commonplace for Prime Minister Nakasone to visit, until he did so on August 15th 1985, the fortieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender. In response to opposition in China, the General Secretary of the CCP, Hu Yaobang, personally requested that Nakasone stop these visits. Though two other prime ministers visited the shrine in the following 15 years, the issue was largely put to rest until Prime Minister Koizumi returned to the shrine in August 2001. He fulfilled his pledge to visit the shrine once a year while he was in office at great cost to the Sino-Japanese relationship at the highest political level and also at the societal level; bilateral summits were suspended and his actions created the impression among many Chinese that Japan had not fully repented for its previous wrongs and even a fear that it might return to its militaristic past. By the end of Koizumi’s tenure in 2006 the political relationship between the two powers had almost completely broken down and on several occasions popular Chinese anger spilled over into protest and even violence against Japanese in China. Subsequent prime ministers elected not to visit the shrine, allowing the political relationship to thaw once more, but this period serves to highlight that the issue of history is never far from the surface of Sino-Japanese relations. In fact, during the three years that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led the country from 2009 to 2012, the issue took a back seat in the relationship. However, it has begun to rear its head once more since the LDP (Koizumi’s party, and the overwhelmingly dominant force in Japanese politics since the end of the US occupation) regained power. In December 2013 Shinzo Abe, now in his second stint as prime minister, visited the shrine on the first anniversary of his return to the post. The act was greeted with anger from across the region but most notable in China and South Korea (with whom Japan has also had a difficult relationship in recent years). Abe has since refrained from visiting the shrine, though he has repeatedly sent offerings under his own name. Objections from the US that have become public since his December 2013 visit might provide an incentive for him not to return in person but even if it is a one-off it has put the shrine issue firmly back on the agenda of Sino-Japanese tension. To mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, Abe made a significant and closely observed speech, repeating aspects of previous apologies but insisting that future generations should not be “condemned” to repeatedly apologize for actions in which they had no part. This was a clear indication that he wanted to move Japan away a position that he – and his supporters – consider to have been overly deferential to China in this area for too long. Such a shift does not go down well in China and this was underscored by Xi Jinping’s speech at its own commemorations of the 70th anniversary a few weeks later.

Slips of the tongue from Japanese politicians (that are not always unintentional) often cause anger and resentment in China as well. In his first period in office immediately succeeding Koizumi, Shinzo Abe managed to offend both China and South Korea by claiming that the issue of ‘comfort women’ – a euphemism for the thousands of women forced into sex slavery at the hands of the Japanese military during their occupation of East Asia – had been exaggerated, earning himself a telling off even from the US. More recently, the mayor of Nagoya declared that he did not believe that the Nanjing Massacre happened. This was particularly insensitive as he made the claim when welcoming a delegation from Nagoya’s sister city: Nanjing. It is this level of insensitivity – displayed by only a minority of Japanese but often by those who make themselves most well heard – that continues to cause frustration, bemusement and resentment among the Chinese. Even more recently, similar views have been expressed by one of the governors of NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.

Territorial Disputes

The other major issue that threatens the stability of the bilateral relationship from time to time is the dispute over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Isalnds (known as Senkaku in Japanese). These uninhabited islands are currently administered by Japan, but are claimed by both countries (and also by Taiwan). It is widely believed that significant levels of resources, including oil and gas, may lie underneath the islands, as well as within the maritime EEZ that would accompany recognition of the sovereignty of the islands. Complicating the issue is China’s exploitation of the Chunxiao gas field; although there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the gas field itself, it is within four kilometres of what Japan considers to be its EEZ and it argues that China may siphon resources from its side. China disputes that this is likely and, in any case, does not accept Japan’s demarcation of its EEZ as it is based on Japanese sovereignty of the islands.

Attempts to resolve the dispute have been largely unsuccessful; during the negotiations for the Treaty of Peace and Friendship it was determined that the matter should be shelved and left for future generations to resolve. However, nationalist activists on both sides have sought to push forward their respective country’s claims to the islands, often leading to heightened diplomatic tensions between the two. One of the most serious incidents in recent times occurred in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard ship that was patrolling the area. The captain and crew of the boat were all arrested and imprisoned in Japan, leading to a major diplomatic dispute between the two countries, with both governments accusing the other of violating sovereignty. The captain was eventually released without charge after Japanese prosecutors determined that action against him would harm Japan’s national interests, though a video was leaked to the media that showed the captain, apparently under the influence of alcohol, intentionally ramming his boat into the Japanese ship. The strength of China’s reaction shocked many in Japan as several Japanese businesspeople were arrested on fairly dubious grounds and exports of rare earths to Japan were apparently halted, though Beijing insisted that the issues were unconnected.

shutterstock_103396334In 2012 Shintaro Ishihara, then the mayor of Tokyo and a right wing firebrand who had long campaigned for a tougher policy towards China, launch a campaign to nationalize the islands. The three largest islands had been in private ownership since Japan integrated them into its territory at the end of the eighteenth century. The family that held the rights to them had been keen to sell them on but was not willing to do so if there could be any threat to Japan’s sovereignty claims. As a result, Ishihara launched a bid to raise enough funds to buy the islands and vowed to take them under the umbrella of the Tokyo government. His plans also included the building of a harbor on the largest island, a move that would unquestionably have inflamed tensions with China and possibly have provoked a military response. When Ishihara’s campaign achieved its goal of raising sufficient funds, the national government decided it had no option but to move on the issue. The then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the national government would purchase the islands and quickly struck an agreement with the family that owned them. This move was, without doubt, driven by a desire to lessen the tension with China as Ishihara’s plan was deemed highly provocative. Under the national government’s ownership no development of the islands would occur and the status quo would effectively be maintained. Noda clearly hoped that this move would be recognized by the Chinese and the response would be proportionate.

However, the nationalization of the islands proved to be a particularly hot topic in China and the response from Chinese society was the most serious that has been seen in any international issue in living memory. A series of scathing diplomatic attacks from the government served as a backdrop to widespread anti-Japanese protests across China. In total, 85 cities on the mainland witnessed large protests with many of these becoming violent. Japanese businesses and citizens were harassed, with even the ambassador’s car coming under attack in Beijing. Calls for boycotts of Japanese produce – a common response from nationalistic Chinese whenever a dispute with Japan occurs – appeared to have a greater effect than ever; in one bizarre demonstration of support for this idea a man set fire to his own Honda car in the middle of a Shanghai street. The economic relationship was demonstrably affected, with Japanese firms temporarily closing factories in China and laying off tens of thousands of workers. Sino-Japanese trade had previously been thought to be almost immune to the repeated spats between the two countries, but annual trade dropped by 4% in 2012. Two-way tourism figures fared even worse, with Chinese visitors to Japan down 33% in October 2012 compared with the previous year while the numbers of Japanese visitors to China fell by two thirds in the second half of 2012.

Since the nationalization China has stepped up “surveillance” of the areas surrounding the islands. Where once an unwritten agreement not to enter Japan’s de facto contiguous zone around the islands had kept the prospect of conflict to a bare minimum, China has since regularly flouted this norm. Though the incursions are frequently “Marine Surveillance” vessels rather than military ships, the possibility of conflict has been raised to its highest level since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. This was brought into sharp focus in December 2012 when a Chinese “Maritime Surveillance” plane entered the airspace of the islands, leading to the Japanese scrambling jets in response. A further escalation of the dispute in January 2013 occurred when the Japanese claimed that a Chinese PLAN frigate (a navy warship) had locked its radar onto a Japanese ship in the waters, suggesting that the first shots were about to be fired. Though China subsequently denied the incident the fact that such ships are now in frequent and close contact has significantly raised the possibility of a miscalculation that might trigger actual armed conflict between the two powers. The seriousness of the situation was heightened by a declaration from Hilary Clinton in January 2013 that the US’ joint security treaty with Japan covers the islands, thus obliging it to defend Japan if attacked by China. This raises the possibility of direct conflict between China and the US for the first time since the Korean War and is a stark reminder to all involved of the gravity of the situation. This was again brought into sharp focus in April 2013 when Prime Minister Abe issued a warning that Japan would respond with force to any attempt by China to land on the islands. Though this is would clearly be a war that would benefit nobody, it remains an unpalatable possibility.

In October 2013 China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea, including directly above the islands. This requires aircraft entering the zone – which is separate from China’s territorial airspace – to identify themselves to the Chinese authorities, log a flight path and retain open communications for the duration of the period of time in the zone. Although the zone is not unique – several of China’s neighbors have similar zones, including Japan – the sudden declaration and the more stringent requirements imposed by China have made this a controversial move that is clearly linked to the islands dispute. Aircraft from both Japan and the US have so far ignored the rules without serious consequence but the potential for miscalculation has clearly been raised even further by this development.

The islands issue has calmed somewhat in recent months but remains a potential flashpoint between the two countries. Certainly no resolution of the issue appears imminent and it has clearly played a role in Japan’s moves to reinterpret its Constitution in order to allow its military to play a role in collective self defense, a move that has caused a great deal of unease in a number of countries in the region, not least in China and South Korea.

The Taiwan Issue

When Japan defeated the Qing in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, one of its major prizes was the ceding of the island of TaiwanTaiwan has not been ruled by Beijing since then, despite its continued claims of sovereignty. Though the Japanese were expelled after their defeat in 1945, its role and position within the Taiwan issue remains a cause of consternation for the Chinese. In particular Japan’s continued hosting of US forces on Okinawa, an island that is of clear strategic importance should the US ever seek to defend Taiwan in a conflict with China, causes friction with Beijing, though it should be noted that it is even more controversial in Okinawa itself where local people have long campaigned for the complete withdrawal of US forces.

Though Japan is firmly committed to the ‘one China’ policy that all countries with which Beijing has diplomatic ties must affirm, it continues to have close ties with the island. These ties are particularly evident in the field of business and Japan is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner with bilateral trade topping $70 billion in 2011. Japan also continues to have a close cultural relationship with the island, with Japanese pop music and television programs particularly popular. This successful ‘soft power’ irks the Chinese who see a continued threat to their claims of sovereignty from a power that has not only demonstrated a willingness to colonize in the past, but which also has a motivation for preventing or delaying the process of the ‘reunification’ of Taiwan and the mainland.

Bilateral Trade


Bilateral trade is the biggest area for optimism in the relationship, and it has been argued that the main factor in preventing open conflict from erupting has been the level of trade between the two. Japan has consistently been one of China’s biggest trading partners since early in the reform era, and has also been a source of significant inward FDI. In 2007 China became Japan’s biggest trading partner and, though Japan’s significance to China has declined relative to other major partners, the two remain closely interlinked. In 2010, bilateral trade reached $300 billion. Such interdependence was forged from a high level of complementarity between the two economies – China was in a position to provide plenty of cheap labor in return for investment and technological transfer at a time that Japanese firms found the need to expand and outsource away from Japan – in combination with a geographic proximity that allows relatively quick transport of both people and goods. In June 2012 direct trading between the RMB and the Yen began, bypassing the US dollar for the first time and making bilateral trade even easier. The trading relationship has remained robust through some of the most heated political disputes, and the relationship during the early 2000s, characterized by political spats over the history issue and popular anti-Japanese protests in China, came to be referred to as “zhengleng jingre” (cold politics, hot economics), though it could also be argued that such problems do impact on bilateral trade that could have been even more spectacular against the backdrop of smoother political ties. Notably, when China chose the partners for its high speed rail network it felt compelled to shun Japanese firms in response to domestic pressure from nationalists angered at Japan’s perceived continued provocations over the history issue. As a result, China’s network of high speed train network was put together by a combination of firms from France, Germany, Canada and China, among others. This represented a negative outcome for both sides, with the Japanese unable to cash in on Chinese investment in its infrastructure that has totaled $300 billion by 2012 and is expected to continue to rise as the network is expanded, while the Chinese ended up with a system that fell short of its original expectations and may have contributed to the fatal train crash in Wenzhou in 2011.

East Asian Regionalization

In recent years there has been some limited progress toward regional integration and institutionalization in East Asia. In some areas this has actually been a source of competition for influence between China and Japan such as in the development of ASEAN +1 and ASEAN +3, whereby the two countries have sought to engage with Southeast Asian countries in order to further their own interests rather than to develop frameworks for dealing directly with each other. However, the two countries’ involvement in the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear issue that also included both of the Koreas, Russia, and the US, was a first step in the creation of a significant regional forum. Though not formally related to the six-party process which has now stalled, China and Japan, along with South Korea, now hold annual three-way summits, hosted on a rotational basis, that have begun to foster a much greater sense of understanding and cooperation between the three powers. While it is significant that South Korea is involved in this, it is the engagement of China and Japan that has the greatest potential for positive impact on the region going forward. However, the islands dispute between China and Japan (as well as another territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea) the erupted again in 2012 has stalled the process. The 2013 summit was indefinitely postponed and although never formally abandoned, there has not been a summit since 2012.

Future Trends

The Sino-Japanese relationship is, arguably, the most important bilateral relationship in shutterstock_3155944East Asia. Many tensions remain, particularly over the history issue and the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute. While the former of these problems has appeared to have been handled sensibly on both sides since the resignation of Koizumi, it remains a deeply-rooted issue that retains the potential to be the cause of significant mistrust and ill-feeling, something that was potently demonstrated by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013. That mistrust of Japan’s apparent moves towards normalization of its military forces is played out in the arena of this historical ill-feeling underlines how important the interpretation of history is in the bilateral relationship, even when considering contemporary issues. The territorial dispute appears equally unlikely to be wholly resolved any time soon, with the positions of both countries entrenched and apparently irreconcilable. The trawler incident in 2010 demonstrated how easily this issue can come to the fore and become a major stumbling block in improving Sino-Japanese relations. Furthermore, the nationalization and subsequent flare-up of tensions from 2012 onwards has shown how dangerous this issue is. However, both sides have ordinarily demonstrated the political resolve to prevent either of these two issues from spilling over into open conflict, and a return to military warfare seems highly unlikely, even if it is no longer entirely unthinkable. The strength of the economic relationship, while declining in relative importance to China, continues to grow and remains both a motivation for, as well as a method of, mitigating the undoubted tensions that do exist between the two powers.

China’s Island Disputes – A lot at Stake

Introduction

By 中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance (中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese surveillance ship and a Japan Coast Guard vessel at close quarters

Among the numerous causes of friction between China and its neighbors, the continued failure to resolve a series of territorial disputes remains one of the most pressing. Threatening to destabilize the entire region, the disputed islands bring China into potential conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and, most worryingly for regional security, Japan. Though virtually all of the islands are uninhabited and largely uninhabitable, they carry with them issues of military strategic importance as well as access to a potential wealth of natural resources. China formerly had land-based territorial disputes with each of the fourteen countries with which it shares a border but has worked hard to resolve these in a peaceful and frequently generous manner, accepting less than 50% of the disputed area in most cases. The only exceptions to this were with Russia, in which each side settled for precisely half of the disputed territory, and India, with whom several disputes are outstanding, complicated by the Tibet issue. The contrast with the maritime disputes could not be starker with almost no progress towards resolution in any of the disputes since the foundation of the PRC in 1949 and with the Chinese position seemingly utterly intransigent. Indeed, developments in recent years have seen a more assertive Chinese position causing serious friction and concern for regional stability. This seemingly belligerent stubbornness is rooted in a complex web of motivations that includes strategic considerations, access to natural resources and fish stocks, the psychological importance of national unification and territorial integrity, and a genuine sense of historical ownership.

Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

Senkaku islands location map (senkaku) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Topographic15deg_N20E120.png Author: jackopoid

Map showing the location of the disputed islands

Perhaps China’s most talked about maritime dispute – certainly in recent times – is in the East China Sea, where it contends with Japan for the sovereignty of what it calls the Diaoyu islands, known to the Japanese as the Senkaku islands. The islands have occasionally been referred to in English as the Pinnacle Islands, but as this is a translation of the Japanese name it is normally not used unless expressing an opinion that the islands are Japanese territory. The rocky, uninhabited islands are located approximately 80 miles northeast of Taiwan and 250 miles west of Okinawa, an island over which there is no dispute and Japan’s most southerly prefecture.  The five islands in the group have a total combined area of just 2.7 square miles and do not have any infrastructure built on them. The dispute is complicated somewhat by Taiwan’s involvement, as it also claims the islands. However, this is not a challenge to China’s position as it considers the islands to be a part of the province of Taiwan, which is internationally recognized to be a part of China.

History

The islands are known to have been used by Chinese fishermen during the Ming Dynasty as shelter during storms, but were never permanently inhabited and their use by the Chinese appears to have come to an end at some time during the Qing Dynasty. Japanese historians argue that the islands were historically a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, a small chain of islands that included Okinawa which operated as a relatively independent state until the late eighteenth century. However, there is evidence that shows the Ryukyu Kingdom itself acknowledged the islands to be a part of the Chinese realm, though this is disputed by some. By the time the Ryukyus were annexed by Japan in 1879 there was no mention of the Senkakus. The islands were re-discovered by a Japanese businessman named Koga in 1884, after which the Japanese surveyed the islands over a ten year period, before fully incorporating them into Japanese administration in 1895.

Respective Positions

The Chinese position on the sovereignty of the islands has two bases: a historical claim; and a geographical claim. The historical claim refers to the first established use of the islands as outlined above. From this perspective, since the islands were first discovered and then used on a frequent basis by the Chinese as early as the 14th century, there can be no dispute as to the original sovereignty of the islands. Given their geographical location it is entirely logical that they would be a part of the province of Taiwan. However, this province was ceded to Japan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki that awarded Taiwan to the Japanese “in perpetuity”. Taiwan remained a colony of Japan until its defeat in the Second World War in August 1945, at which point the Potsdam and Cairo Declarations – both accepted by Japan as conditions of its surrender – decreed that Japan should return Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty. As the Diaoyu Islands are considered to have historically been part of Taiwan, they should be included in this. The second basis of China’s claim is somewhat tenuous in international law and refers to the nature of the East Asian continental shelf. China claims that the shelf is part of Chinese territory and extends out into the East China Sea, incorporating the Diaoyu Islands. Though it is true that the continental shelf is exceptional in its extension, it is worth noting that such a claim has never been used by any other country in the world, and there is little to suggest that it has any basis in law.

The Japanese position on the islands is based on a claim of “continuous occupation or administration”. From the Japanese perspective the uninhabited and entirely undeveloped islands were rediscovered in 1884 by Koga, and an appropriate survey conducted over the following decade. They were then incorporated into Okinawa Prefecture as sovereign Japanese territory. After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the islands remained under the administration of the occupying US forces, who maintained control of Okinawa until 1972, a fully twenty years after handing back control of the Japanese mainland. For the Japanese, the Senkaku Islands were restored to Japanese sovereignty at this point and had not been separated from Okinawa Prefecture at any time since 1895.

Though China never acknowledged Japanese claims over the islands, it never challenged US administration of them during the almost three decades following the end of the war, though this is complicated by the presence on Taiwan of US allies the Kuomintang (Guomindang, KMT). However, it is notable that serious diplomatic noises surrounding the sovereignty issue only emerged after a UN report was released in 1968 suggesting that significant reserves of oil and gas may lie under the water surrounding the islands. Despite these noises, when the PRC and Japan normalized relations in 1972 the matter was shelved, as it was in 1978 during negotiations over the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, with Deng Xiaoping confidently declaring that “the next generation will be wiser”. Since then, no significant negotiation has taken place over the issue, with the Japanese exercising de facto control of the islands through regular patrols by the Japanese Coast Guard.

Modern Day Controversies

By Wuyouyuan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese poster showing the islands with superimposed Chinese flags signifying sovereignty

In response to Chinese claims over the islands, the Japan Youth Federation – a right wing group nationalist group with links to serious organized crime that seeks to promote a positive Japanese national identity and downplay Japan’s wartime atrocities – landed on the largest of the islands and erected a lighthouse, the first structure ever built on the islands. This was done without the consent of the Japanese government and China strongly objected to it as a provocation. The lighthouse has continued to be a source of controversy as members of the group have returned to the island periodically to conduct “maintenance”, frequently at times of increased tension over the issue. At the same time as building the lighthouse the group sought to address the problem of the islands being uninhabited, by leaving two (Japanese) goats behind. This symbolic gesture has had unintended but serious consequences for the island’s ecosystem; the single pair of goats, without any natural predators, has bred to a total in excess of 300, devastating the vegetation and bringing the Senkaku mole – an evolutionary distinct mammal found only on the island – to the brink of extinction.

A diplomatic spat between China and Japan was sparked in 1996 when the Japan Youth Federation returned to the islands to conduct maintenance on its lighthouse. However, what is notable about the controversy – which occurred in the wake of the Taiwan Strait Crisis that appeared to bring the region to the brink of military conflict – is that it was not publicized in China until it had been resolved. The People’s Daily – the most widely circulated newspaper in China that also functions as the CCP’s mouthpiece – did not report on the issue, even in pieces that criticized Japan over other issues. There was a clear desire in China not to provoke the public over the issue, and the matter was dealt with relatively swiftly at the diplomatic level.

The issue continued to be one of several sources of tension between China and Japan throughout the rest of the 1990s and into the 2000s, without sparking serious incident. It remained a matter of dispute that was brought up during virtually every bilateral meeting and no solution has ever appeared close but neither side had sought to change the status quo. There were minor sources of irritation, including the arrest of a Chinese fisherman near the islands in 2004, but he was swiftly released without charge by the Japanese who sought to play down the significance of the incident.

However, in 2010, the matter returned to centre stage in Sino-Japanese tension. In September of that year a Chinese fishing boat was spotted in what Japan considers to be its waters. A patrolling Japan Coast Guard (JCG) ship ordered it to leave the waters immediately, but the fishing boat instead changed course to head directly towards the Japanese ship. Though the Chinese side later disputed this version of events a video taken from the JCG vessel that was later leaked by a disgruntled employee clearly showed that the fishing boat intentionally rammed into the Japanese boat twice. At this point the entire crew was arrested, sparking a major diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

Though the rest crew was released almost immediately, the captain of the boat was detained for a total of 17 days, on possible charges under Japanese law. The Chinese response was vociferous, both at the governmental and societal levels, with strongly worded diplomatic protests and apparently spontaneous street demonstrations against Japan. There were reports that China had suspended exports of rare earths to Japan in response, though academic analysis has later disputed this version of events. A group of Japanese businessmen were also arrested in the aftermath of the boat captain’s detention, on seemingly spurious charges that appeared to be a tit-for-tat retaliation. The diplomatic standoff finally came to an end when Japan apparently blinked first, with the Chief Prosecutor announcing the release of the captain without charge on the grounds of “Japan’s national interests”, something that caused a debate over the legality of his actions within Japan. While this brought an end to this chapter of the dispute, it served to bring the islands to the forefront of Sino-Japanese tensions.

Japanese Nationalization

In 2012 a campaign Shintaro Ishihara, then the mayor of Tokyo and a right wing firebrand who had long campaigned for a tougher policy towards China, launch a campaign to nationalize the islands. The three largest islands had been in private ownership since Japan integrated them into its territory at the end of the eighteenth century. The family that held the rights to them had been keen to sell them on but was not willing to do so if there could be any threat to Japan’s sovereignty claims. As a result, Ishihara launched a bid to raise enough funds to buy the islands and vowed to take them under the umbrella of the Tokyo government. His plans also included the building of a harbor on the largest island, a move that would unquestionably have inflamed tensions with China and possibly have provoked a military response. When Ishihara’s campaign achieved its goal of raising sufficient funds, the national government decided it had no option but to move on the issue. The then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the national government would purchase the islands and quickly struck an agreement with the family that owned them. This move was, without doubt, driven by a desire to lessen the tension with China as Ishihara’s plan was deemed highly provocative. Under the national government’s ownership no development of the islands would occur and the status quo would effectively be maintained. Noda clearly hoped that this move would be recognized by the Chinese and the response would be proportionate.

By 中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance (中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anti-Japan protest in Beijing in 2012

However, the nationalization of the islands proved to be a particularly hot topic in China and the response from Chinese society was the most serious that has been seen in any international issue in living memory. A series of scathing diplomatic attacks from the government served as a backdrop to widespread anti-Japanese protests across China. In total, 85 cities on the mainland witnessed large protests with many of these becoming violent. Japanese businesses and citizens were harassed, with even the ambassador’s car coming under attack in Beijing. Calls for boycotts of Japanese produce – a common response from nationalistic Chinese whenever a dispute with Japan occurs – appeared to have a greater effect than ever; in one bizarre demonstration of support for this idea a man set fire to his own Honda car in the middle of a Shanghai street. The economic relationship was demonstrably affected, with Japanese firms temporarily closing factories in China and laying off tens of thousands of workers. Sino-Japanese trade had previously been thought to be almost immune to the repeated spats between the two countries, but annual trade dropped by 4% in 2012. Two-way tourism figures fared even worse, with Chinese visitors to Japan down 33% in October 2012 compared with the previous year while the numbers of Japanese visitors to China fell by two thirds in the second half of 2012.

Since the nationalization China has stepped up “surveillance” of the areas surrounding the islands. Where once an unwritten agreement not to enter Japan’s de facto contiguous zone around the islands had kept the prospect of conflict to a bare minimum, China has since regularly flouted this norm. Though the incursions are frequently “Marine Surveillance” vessels rather than military ships, the possibility of conflict has been raised to its highest level since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. This was brought into sharp focus in December 2012 when a Chinese “Maritime Surveillance” plane entered the airspace of the islands, leading to the Japanese scrambling jets in response. A further escalation of the dispute in January 2013 occurred when the Japanese claimed that a Chinese PLAN frigate (a navy warship) had locked its radar onto a Japanese ship in the waters, suggesting that the first shots were about to be fired. Though China subsequently denied the incident the fact that such ships are now in frequent and close contact has significantly raised the possibility of a miscalculation that might trigger actual armed conflict between the two powers. The seriousness of the situation is heightened by a declaration from Hilary Clinton in January 2013 that the US’ joint security treaty with Japan covers the islands, thus obliging it to defend Japan if attacked by China. This raises the possibility of direct conflict between China and the US for the first time since the Korean War and is a stark reminder to all involved of the gravity of the situation.

In October 2013 China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea, including directly above the islands. This requires aircraft entering the zone – which is separate from China’s territorial airspace – to identify themselves to the Chinese authorities, log a flight path and retain open communications for the duration of the period of time in the zone. Although the zone is not unique – several of China’s neighbors have similar zones, including Japan – the sudden declaration and the more stringent requirements imposed by China have made this a controversial move that is clearly linked to the islands dispute. Aircraft from both Japan and the US have so far ignored the rules without serious consequence but the potential for miscalculation has clearly been raised even further by this development.

South China Sea Disputes

In addition to China’s dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, it has competing claims with several countries of Southeast Asia for islands and maritime rights. China’s famous “nine dashed line” details its claim to virtually every single island and rock in the South China Sea, stretching to within 50 miles of the mainlands of Malaysia and the Philippines despite being more than a thousand miles from China’s mainland in several instances. There are two main groups of islands within this vast area of sea claimed by the PRC: the Paracel Islands, which is disputed with Vietnam; and the Spratly Islands, which are wholly claimed by China, and partly claimed by each of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam, with Indonesia also claiming maritime rights in the area without actually staking a claim to any territory. Additionally, there are disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank. As with the East China Sea, each of the disputes is complicated by matching claims from Taiwan which are based on the same justifications as the PRC.

The Paracels

The location of the disputed and uninhabited Paracels and Spratlys

Known as Xisha Qundao (West Sand Islands) in Chinese and Hoàng Sa (Yellow Sand) in Vietnamese, the Paracel Islands are located approximately 200 miles south of Hainan Island (China’s most southerly province) and a similar distance east of central Vietnam. The group is made up of more than 30 islands, islets, reefs and sandbanks. Their significance lies mostly in access to significant fishing stocks, though it is thought that oil and gas deposits may also be present.

From a Vietnamese perspective, the islands have been sovereign territory since the 15th century, when harvesting of sea produce was conducted on the islands. This claim is supported by some historical evidence in the form of records kept by several of the Vietnamese dynasties that detail continues use of the islands throughout the following centuries. The islands were claimed by France in the mid-19th century after the colonization of Indochina, and this claim met with no objection from China, though it is reasonable to consider that China was in something of a situation of turmoil itself at this time facing the prospect of colonization itself for the first time in its history. The French reasserted their claim to the islands in 1930, this time meeting with resistance from what was then the Republic of China. The islands were annexed by Japan in 1939 as its military rolled across East Asia. Following Japan’s defeat in 1945, the status of the islands was left ambiguous by the post-War treaties, until Japan itself completed an agreement with Vietnam for the return of sovereignty over the islands 1952. Though this was complicated further by the partition of Vietnam two years later, the present-day reunified Vietnam considers this treaty to be valid and still in force, demonstrating its continued sovereignty over the islands.

China’s claims actually predate those of Vietnam, with record from the Song Dynasty suggesting that some Chinese habitation of the islands occurred during this time. The islands were also included in maps produced during later dynasties, including the Yuan and the Ming. Though the use of the islands appears to have subsided during the Qing Dynasty, no Chinese government ever renounced the claims and the Republic of China formally objected to the French colonial government of Indochina building a weather station on the largest of the islands in 1932. Additional evidence of China’s claim, perversely, comes from the Japanese invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which the Japanese foreign ministry demanded that France desist from activities on the islands on the basis that they were part of the administrative prefecture of Hainan Island, then under Japanese occupation. After Japan’s defeat, China considers sovereignty to have been returned to it under the terms of Japan’s surrender.

In 1974, while North Vietnam and South Vietnam were still engaged in war with each other for control of the two countries, the south fought a battle with China for the Paracel Islands. The battle was sparked by attempts from the South Vietnamese navy to expel Chinese fishing vessels from the surrounding waters, leading China to take military action in support of its fishing rights. After a brief naval battle and aerial bombardment, the Chinese forces launched an amphibious assault on several of the islands that it had not previously occupied, securing a decisive victory that established a permanent military presence on the islands. The battle lasted only a couple of days and Vietnamese casualties were relatively small, with around 50 deaths and a similar number of injuries, but the result was highly significant in the dispute over the islands as it established Chinese de facto control of the archipelago. A recurrence of military activity in 1988 left a further 70 Vietnamese dead, though this incident is frequently dismissed as nothing more than a ‘skirmish’.

The dispute remains unresolved has been at the root of sporadic incidences of diplomatic difficulties between the two countries, usually sparked by disagreements over fishing rights. These spats have become more commonplace since China established a symbolic administrative region that incorporated the Paracels in 2007. In 2010 China announced plans to develop tourism to the islands in a move that the Vietnamese condemned as a “serious violation” of its sovereignty. A potentially serious flashpoint occurred in June 2011 when a Vietnamese oil survey ship was apparently rammed by a Chinese patrol vessel in waters close to Vietnam, seemingly outside of what even China considers to be its waters. Chinese military vessels have also detained Vietnamese fishermen on numerous occasions in recent years. For example, in March 2012 a total of 21 fishermen were arrested by Chinese patrol boats, after a fleet of around 100 Vietnamese boats entered what China considers to be its waters surrounding the islands. Though they were released a few weeks later the reaction sparked angry and violent protest against China in Vietnam, notably in the capital, Hanoi. Though both governments have sought to develop friendlier ties in many other areas of their relationship in recent years, the islands dispute remains a constant thorn in bilateral ties and a conduit for ugly nationalist sentiment in both countries.

In May 2014 China moved an oil rig from a part of the sea that was undisputed into an area that Vietnam considers to be its territorial waters. This sparked an angry response from both state and society in Vietnam with violent anti-Chinese protests breaking out across the country, resulting in several serious injuries to Chinese workers and the evacuation of hundreds of foreign workers (including many non-Chinese caught up in the protests). Though no direct military confrontation has followed, the dispute has taken Sino-Vietnamese relations to their lowest point for decades.

The Spratlys

The Spratly Islands are a group of around 750 islands, islets, reefs and sand banks, totaling a little over one square mile of actually land but spread out across in excess of 100,000 square miles of the South China Sea. They are largely uninhabited but several countries have succeeded in establishing military presences on some of the islands in their respective claims. Thus, 45 of the islands are home to military forces from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei also claims one island but has not established a military presence on it. China refers to the islands as Nansha Qundao (South Sand Islands), and considers them to be part of the same symbolic administrative region as the Paracels. It is the only country (except for Taiwan, whose own claims overlap the PRC’s for historical reasons) to claim the entire archipelago, which includes islands that are within 50 miles of the mainlands of Malaysia and the Philippines but more than 1000 miles from China’s own mainland. The economic value of the island is questionable at best, with initial surveys suggesting that oil and gas may be present but in unknown quantities. However, from a strategic perspective, as well as for reasons of national pride and for access to fishing stocks, the islands retain a high level of importance to all parties in the dispute.

As with the Paracels, China’s claims rests on historical usage of the islands during dynastic times, stretching back to the Yuan Dynasty, while Vietnamese claims are also rooted in their own historical use and supported by the French colonization of the area that purported to include the archipelago in its empire. Claims from Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei are more geographical than historical, with each citing the proximity of uninhabited and undeveloped islands to their own undisputed sovereign territory as justification for their claims. The dispute is complicated by the lack of native populations and the previous colonization of several of the competing countries in the claims.

The dispute has remained unresolved and, particularly in recent years, has led to heightened tension with potential for military conflict in the region. Indeed, in May 2011 it was reported that vessels from the Chinese navy (PLAN) had fired upon several Vietnamese ships in the region, including two oil survey ships and at least one fishing boat. The incident contributed to a serious deterioration of ties between the two nations during that time and sparked further angry anti-China protests in major Vietnamese cities. Around the same time the Philippines government began to express concerns about China’s increased activity around the islands and openly warned the visiting Chinese Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, that his country “risked sparking an arms race” in the region if it did not seek to ease tensions swiftly.

Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank

Macclesfield Bank: a tiny, uninhabitable ridge in the South China Sea

Outside of the Paracels and the Spratlys, the South China Sea is also home to Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank which are disputed between China and the Philippines. Both are significant for strategic reasons and for the implications that any acknowledged sovereignty claim might have on other disputes in the Spratly Islands.

Macclesfield Bank, known as Zhongsha Qundao (Central Sand Islands) is a completely submerged chain of reefs that does not qualify as territory under international law since it cannot be inhabited by human beings. Nevertheless, both the PRC and Taiwan claim it to be part of Chinese territory. The position of the Philippines government is less clear; in 2012 it objected to Chinese activity in the area but has never lodged a formal claim to sovereignty. In any case, since the atoll is entirely submerged it is not clear how such a claim would be made and what effect it could have.

Scarborough Shoal, known in Chinese as Nanyan Dao (South Cave Island) is actually a group of small islets or rocks, all uninhabited. Its sovereignty is disputed between China and the Philippine (as well as Taiwan) in the same way that the Spratly Islands are, though are considered geographically separate. Claims from all sides are somewhat patchy in their historical evidence, particularly as there is no evidence of inhabitation on any of the rocks at any point in history. Nevertheless, it remains a sore point in bilateral relations as both China and the Philippines seek access to fishing stocks and potentially other natural resources.

The dispute came to international attention in 2012 when eight Chinese fishing boats were apprehended by a Filipino naval vessel which accused the crews of illegally catching sharks and taking coral. China sent in two “Marine Surveillance” ships to block the Filipinos from taking further action and a standoff ensued, leading to heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries and tit-for-tat protests in major cities. Strong winds ultimately led to the Philippines having to temporarily withdraw its presence, after which Chinese surveillance ships set up a naval blockade, preventing any further access to the shoal. Though no direct conflict occurred, the situation is ongoing with the blockade remaining in place to the chagrin of the Philippines.

Trends

It is quite clear that an expansion of China’s naval capabilities achieved through its rapid military modernization has allowed it to become more assertive in its various maritime disputes with its neighbors. It represents a significant departure from the policy that was pursued with regard to the various land disputes that China previously had with all of its neighbors, during which it sought to resolve them rapidly and generously, gaining much appreciation in doing so. This change of stance over the maritime disputes has had several implications for the region as a whole as well as for China itself.

Firstly, it has led to a worsening in bilateral ties with several of China’s neighbors. The most serious of these is the ongoing dispute with Japan that has taken Sino-Japanese relations to arguably their lowest point since the Second Sino-Japanese War. This has inflamed nationalist tensions on both side and had an impact on the economic relationship as well as threatening military conflict. The room for compromise on this issue is severely limited for both sides and it will remain a significant source of tension between the two regional powers. Similarly, the relationships with Vietnam and the Philippines have suffered and both of these countries have witnessed anti-China protests in recent years as a result of the maritime disputes.

Secondly, China’s adversaries in the region have sought to strengthen their ties with the US in order to further protect themselves against what they see as a more assertive China. This will provide a challenge for China as it has previously sought to mitigate US power in the region. What China believes to be US attempts to encircle it and limit Chinese growth can only be served by its neighbors developing closer ties with the US and this may, ultimately, be the most significant cost to China of its policy shift. Hilary Clinton’s declaration in September 2012 that the maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a matter of “national interest” to the US was a stark illustration to China that its change in stance over the area has consequences in this regard.

Thirdly, Chinese ‘soft power’ in Southeast Asia has suffered greatly because of its stance over the South China Sea. Having previously worked hard to project an image of a responsible power in the region, such damage has quickly undone decades of policies aimed at convincing China’s neighbors that its rise would be peaceful and not threatening. It is not clear how this can be rectified if it continues with the same pattern of hard-line policies in this area.

Finally, despite these costs to China’s international position and various bilateral relationships, its strategic position has been strengthened in various parts of the South and East China Seas. It now controls, or has access to, several positions that previously it did not. From a purely traditional military point of view, this can be viewed as a success and a gain in the balance of power in the region. Whether this will compensate adequately for the increased attention that the US will now pay to the region, the damaged bilateral relationships, and China’s deteriorating image in the region, remains to be seen.

Beijing visit by Japanese envoy gives chance to repair ties