Avoiding the Unthinkable in the E. China Sea
Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister: Japan

Avoiding the Unthinkable in the E. China Sea


The catalyst for escalation in this longstanding dispute, which involves claims to sovereignty between China, Japan, and Taiwan, was the announcement by Tokyo on September 10 that it had signed a deal to nationalize three of the islets — Uotsurijima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima — by purchasing them from a private owner for 2.05 billion Yen ($26 million USD). According to reports, the Japanese government had drawn up multiple plans for its next move, and nationalization, the one ultimately selected by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, was regarded as the least likely to anger Beijing and Taipei — with the exception of Plan A, which was to do nothing. Far more provocative among the eight options considered was the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to the islands around the clock.

No sooner had the announcement been made than protests erupted in various cities across China, and the following day Beijing ordered the cancellation of a scheduled visit by Japanese lawmakers, and linked the decision to the dispute. The Japanese consulate in Shanghai announced on September 14 that four Japanese citizens had been injured in attacks in China. In Taipei, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Japanese representative Sumio Tarui and recalled its envoy to Tokyo, Shen Ssu-tsun. Around the same time, China announced it had dispatched two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships to conduct patrols “near the islets,” while the Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) raised its profile with public demonstrations of escort procedures. Tokyo then announced it would mobilize its coast guard when the CMS vessels reached the archipelago. On September 14, media reported that six Chinese surveillance ships had “briefly entered waters” near the Diaoyutais. By afternoon, all vessels had left following a warning by the Japanese coast guard.

While Chinese media brought the rhetoric to fever-pitch levels, with the Beijing Evening News posting "a link to an article comparing weaponry for a potential with Japan, claiming that China should use the atomic bomb" and protesters holding placards calling on the government to “Declare war on Japan [to] settle new scores and old scores together,” apprehensions of war remain premature.

This is not to say that the situation does not have the potential to escalate. After all, amid speculation of a power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party fueled by the disappearance of President Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, Xi Jinping, from public view since September 1, some China watchers will claim that the crisis serves as a perfect diversion. Talk of settling new and old scores — which go back not only to the events leading up to World War Two, but to China’s first humiliation at the hands of the Japanese, the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 — will immediately appeal to the resentment and rising nationalism among Chinese, and could be used to direct their energy away from home and towards an external object.

For his part, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, whose public support rate has dropped to its lowest level since he came into office in 2008, could also be tempted to distract the public by focusing on external matters, such as the Diaoyutais and the South China Sea territorial dispute, although both issues are largely perceived as irrelevant among Taiwanese.

So far, though, it is reasonable to expect that cool heads will prevail, if only for the fact that trade between Asia’s two largest economies would suffer tremendously should war erupt between them. The assumption, therefore, is that the situation remains manageable and that “rational” leaders will make the right decision, which is to de-escalate. Furthermore, though the decision to nationalize the islets may have been controversial, Tokyo is unlikely to have acted without consulting its main security guarantor and security treaty member, the United States. Had Washington strongly opposed the move for fear of its destabilizing effect, it would not have happened, as Tokyo would not want to compromise its alliance over small islets in the East China Sea.

As part of efforts to mitigate the backlash, Japan also dispatched Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Ministry, to Beijing on September 11 to explain the decision to Chinese officials, while Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura explained that Japan had never used the term “nationalize” to describe the move, and had rather “obtained property we had been leasing."

While the war of word rages, with each side maintaining it will not give an inch in the dispute, the greatest risk — and what is now perhaps keeping investors up at night — is the possibility of small clashes. We have not, for the time being, entered a phase where the conflict risks becoming militarized. The fact that the Chinese navy would have to confront both the largest navy in Asia and the largest navy in the world also serves as a deterrent to escalation, and compels Beijing to explore other means by which to retaliate and satisfy domestic calls for a more muscular response. Therefore, as long as the three claimants limit their operational use to civilian agencies, as opposed to their naval forces, the conflict is unlikely to escalate beyond a point where it can no longer be managed.

Likelier scenarios for the near future, then, involve the possibility of small clashes resulting from accidents or miscommunication.

The dispute has entered a phase where almost every element of the trilateral relationship is perceived through the prism of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku issue. A perfect example of this was news on September 13 that Shinichi Nishimiya, Japan’s newly appointed ambassador to China, had suddenly collapsed in Tokyo. The fact that Japanese police felt it necessary to publicly rule out foul play highlights the need to preempt speculation that China may have had a hand in the affair. What this tells us is that in the current context, minor, even unrelated incidents, can inadvertently lead to escalation.

Meanwhile, all three countries are sending people and vessels to the area, and activists in Hong Kong have indicated they could embark on a second high-profile visit to the islets to uphold China’s sovereignty claim. The further coast guards and fishermen operate from home, the more command-and-control suffers. Self-initiative can aggravate tensions. How the three sides would react if a boat commander decided to ram a Japanese coast guard vessel, or if a Chinese fisherman drowned after his small boat overturns in a maneuver to avoid collision with a larger vessel, is hard to predict.

But as long as the presence is limited to civilian ships, coast guard vessels equipped with nothing more than machine guns, or fishermen wielding small arms or machetes, even clashes would likely remain limited to minor incidents which can still be managed by the political centers. For the time being, neither claimant will dispatch navy vessels there, which dramatically limits the chances of major escalation. Conversely, the deployment of navy ships to the area would be a clear indicator that the conflict has entered a new, and potentially far more perilous, phase.

The U.S. can also play a calming role in this. If reports that emerged in August were true, the U.S. military will use RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs based in Guam to conduct surveillance over the area, which could help reduce the risks of accidents and therefore could de-escalate tensions. As long as the conflict is handled by civilian agencies, the U.S. is unlikely to extend its assistance to Japan beyond intelligence sharing, and Washington should endeavor to persuade Beijing, Tokyo and Taipei to stay away from military escalation.

As the world watches from the sidelines, we can all hope that rational leaders will prevail over the more extremist elements within their respective countries so that the dispute over the islets remains manageable and does not plunge the region into a costly and unnecessary war. So far, this remains the most likely scenario. However, if we learned anything from the events leading up to World War I, it is that economic interdependence and “rational” leadership alone will sometimes be insufficient to avoid a descent into war.

Aussie Intelligence Asset
September 19, 2012 at 15:12

Look, people, calling each other names, threats and such like does not prove who is right or wrong, does it?
China has grown economically and with all the money, militarily.
China is flexing its muscle, its already pushing Taiwan to be "its seperated brothers" play.
Most Taiwanese would prefer to stay seperate, so why push?
Because China can, why does China now push abou the islands, because it feels it can. There is more to this, Tibet, what about that, look at the whole picture.
There has been a gradual expansion by China, economically, politicaly now militarily, look at Vietnam, whats going on there, China is now claiming sections of Vietnams waters, that are Vietnams, Whats going on there?
Mr Chan, do not treat people as fools, You are pro Chinese, and good for you, you have a right to stand proud of all that China has accomplished, but do not try to justify unwarrented manouvering.
Look at all the info, do not focus on one point of distraaction, more is at play here than anyone of us really realize, as in all good games of Xiangqi, misdirection is a key, as in all warfare deception is key, politics is but an arm of the same game.
Look for more in this, what are Chinas goals? Why start this now? is it a misdirection for another issue???
Dont call each other names and act like you know it all, we dont, i dont, sure have your say, but stay civil.

September 19, 2012 at 08:41

Hi James – your calls for calm are sensible and oddly reflect the issue here. I agree with you that the Japanese move was provacative, but consider that these territorial disputes are happening across Asia, with claims and counter claims on numerous enclaves and islets. There are some high profile cases – such as where the disputed territories are inhabited by people(s) with distinctive national identities that often boil up into unrest or even violence. To some extent this is understandable as history and the realities of governing come into conflict. In most cases like this where the Chinese government are involved, the response is zero tolerance (think Tibet, Xinjiang) for even peaceful demonstrations and zero response to even extreme cries for change (think 50 people setting themselves on fire). Contrast those complaints against China's government with an offense against China's government: Official press crying madness (nukes? nukes? for god's sake!) and if not actual police complicity in the protests, at least allowing them to run wild in a way that would never, ever be tolerated with a complaint against China's government. In other words, if Japan is wrong in this situation, this is not how a mature, consistent, reasonable, reliable, sincere government deals with it. And for all the trolls out there, I've said it before and I'll say it again, I would make (and have made) exactly the same comments about western, African, Latin American governments if they showed this sort of hypicrosy, so please spare me the 'you don't understand us, you're racist' nonesense.

September 18, 2012 at 23:35

Everyone please calm down. No need to raise blood pressure over this.  We are all outsiders.  And we may all just benefit from it.
One thing to note is that this recent drama was started by Tokyo's mayor's high-profile campaign to purchase the islands.  That's probably a mistake.  If he had not started such a campaign, no such dispute would have happened this year.  He is responsible for this problem. 

September 18, 2012 at 23:00

This island dispute is no ordinary island dispute.  This is something that is intertwined with both WWII history and modern day politics.  You want to read more on WWII history and the modern politics to fully understand the situattion. It is more complex than what is on the surface. 
Similarly, you cannot use your rules to judge the land dispute between Israel and Palestine.  They are all more complex than you can think.

September 18, 2012 at 12:42

Are you kidding me?  Nuke japan? What the heck is wrong with China? You are at best a bunch of thugs with the mentality of a cockroach. What a absolute country full of scumbags.

September 18, 2012 at 12:33

Funny how the PRC  leave the shouting to the people, and afterwards sweep in to call for restrain domestically while apply pressure internationally to respect the wishes of ordinary Chinese.

Just look at the anti-Japan sentiment at the moment and in the past: if the same kind of rallies are about local corruption and power abuse, force and mass arrests will be the order of the day. Instead, the government just let the people express themselves 'freely'.

It's hypocrisy to the max.

September 18, 2012 at 12:31

China claim ownership of the sea just 50km off of Palawan, Philippines. They ignore Philippine's sovereignty, economic zone and international maritime laws.This shows you that China is nothing but a bully.
They are so concerned about their image but they're the only ones making it worse.

September 18, 2012 at 06:30

No one asks China to buy UST-bonds. It bought them to buy down its RMB for its own export advantage & as a safe investment. That's it, commie. So far, PLAN is still no match for its Japanese counterpart. So, don't miscalculate & don't ask for the worst! Today, Sensaku, tomorrow, Okinawa, Java, Guam ,Hawaii etc. The list just goes on & on until being stopped by some overwhelmingly brute forces.

Foolish Noys
September 18, 2012 at 04:56

Stupid noys who can't even write properly in English and pretend even to be "European" as below.  How pathetic.

September 18, 2012 at 00:21

Have you tried reading or watching real stories about your country? Or,you are just comfortable sitting and watching state-run news and programs on your pirated TV in your state-run and showcased city while munching on a fetus-added with melamine milk shake and playing on your lead-painted toy…?Pathetic.

September 18, 2012 at 00:10

Turning to UNCLOS and filing protest to the UN? Why? Your bullying didnt work against Japan? The tides are turning in the end you'll be an international pariah.

John Chan
September 17, 2012 at 21:58

Your personal opinion is wrong. After WWII, the defeated fascist Japan was only allowed to keep its four main islands, all other lands it occupied thru aggression have to be returned to their original owners, it was the stipulation imposed on Japan by the Allies. Therefore neither Ryukyu Kingdom nor Diaoyu Islands belongs to Japan. On top of that, without reading Chinese source of evidence, your conclusion is one sided, skewed and misleading.
When China tries to protect its sovergnty it becomes “entitle to suzerainty over the Far East,” while Japan’s encroachment of China’s land it becomes Japan’s right because the USA nuked it. Your logic of siding Japan surly is a replay of western imperialists’ old tricks during the unequal treaty era, no matter what happened, it was always a blade on China. China has seen enough of the West’s ruthlessness and hypocrisy in the last 200 years, please keep your love and trust to yourself. Your kind of arrogance and entitlement to interfere Asia-Pacific businesses like the British Empire time is indeed cringeworthy and sickening.
Calling “peaceful solutions to all problems must be given the utmost priority.” while stirring up hostility in Asia-Pacific unrelentingly is an artful display of the West’s talking out of both sides of mouth.
BTW "rain in with heavy hand." will not have any effect on that unapologetic war criminal Japan, but “rein in with heavy hand” may have.
Finally you need to see Japanese war crime artifacts in China before you using “Hiroshima Memorial” to lecture others on behalf of Japan, otherwise you are an accomplice to white wash Japanese war crimes it committed in the WWII, you are doing a great injustice to those victims died under the Japanese atrocity.

September 17, 2012 at 20:22

Well of course Chinese civilians in Japan wouldn't be attacked. The Japanese have no reason to be angry, as they're not the ones being wronged.

September 17, 2012 at 20:18

Why stop the retrospect at 1945? Such an arbitrary (read biased) year, don't you think?
Lets go futher.

John Chan
September 17, 2012 at 20:17

Europe is the place has no law and order, nobody in Europe respects what EU’s rule and law, they all cheat and lie recklessly so that they can break the EU rules and laws in order to spend and borrow irresponsibly, all of them have been building their national debt beyond their means to repay. Even under the pressure of collapse, no European agrees to follow EU rule of law to resolve their debt crisis.
Indeed it is funny to see a European who has no clothes trying to lecture other how to dress.

John Chan
September 17, 2012 at 20:03

This is internet, we are practising freedom of speech, and nobody ask you to agree to anything. If you do not agree with my comment or anybody’s comment, all you have to do is to post your point of view. Bad mouthing other blogger without posting your own point of view is a poor debater, it only proves you are a bigot.

John Chan
September 17, 2012 at 19:47

After WWII, the defeated fascist Japan was only allowed to keep its four main islands, all other lands it occupied thru aggression have to be returned to their original owners, it was the stipulation imposed on Japan by the Allies.
USA is just one of the Allies, nobody authorized the USA to act on behave the Allies. USA has no right to alter the terms imposed on the defeated Fascist Japan. Why didn’t the USA let Ryukyu Kingdom become independent, but instead it helped the Fascist Japan to reoccupy RyuKyu Kingdom, and assisting the Fascist Japan to encroaching China’s Daioyu Islands? Is the USA a closet Fascist? So it is subconsciously siding an ex Fascist war criminal?

September 17, 2012 at 18:35

Including me, many Japanese do not fabricate their identities like someone else.  My comment above is how I think about how other Asian nations feel about China.  Over the weekend of anti-Japan protests in China, some demonstrators became extremely violent.  Panasonic factories and Japanese supermarkets were completely demolished.  If you don’t know, please google or youtube for it.  This is what I meant on my previous comment.   I feel recent China is unnecessary violent and bully.  Have a nice day.

September 17, 2012 at 16:18

agree. china has no logic in their arguments. Their arguments are just arguments from the mouth of the big bully. Unfornately, the world can't turn back hundreds of years for them to claim what they want. If the US and the western powers are not there, i think china can proceed to claim the entire Pacific as theirs based on some vague fact that one of its ancient general once traveled and peed in the ocean during his trip.

September 17, 2012 at 15:16

You seem funny to speak for the Japs even though you are not one of them. It's funny that you assume the Japs cannot think what is good and bad for themselves! I think the problem is your mindset, not them!

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