Japan's Three Options in the East China Sea
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Japan's Three Options in the East China Sea


What options does China have? The Naval Diplomat's James Holmes has one idea here.

Tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands are continuing, as indicated by continued obstacles to Japanese businesses in China, a drastic decline in tourism, and Chinese patrols near the islands.   This is both a Sino-Japanese issue and a part of a broader confrontation between China on one side and the United States and its allies on the other. 

Given Japan’s reliance on the U.S. security umbrella, Tokyo’s moves are to some extent constrained by American actions.  Nevertheless, Japan’s size and resources mean Tokyo retains considerable autonomy in handling its relationship with Beijing.

At this point, Tokyo has three options:

DO NOTHING.    Regardless of the legitimacy of conflicting claims over the islands, the responsibility for the escalation lies mostly with China.   The nationalization of three islets, previously owned by a Japanese citizen, did not alter the status quo.  Moreover, given (former) Governor Ishihara’s antics about Tokyo purchasing then, it was imperative that the central government preempt him.   On the other hand, the party-sponsored – or at least tolerated – violence against Japanese property and individuals in China was on a different scale.   Additionally, Chinese moves against Japanese businesses in China amount to economic sanctions. 

Nevertheless, doing nothing is an option for Japan.   Chinese actions so far are not a grave threat.   Japan has an overriding interest in not making the situation worse, and in making sure that if it does it will be crystal clear that Beijing is at fault.   A Japanese reaction could backfire, whereas waiting to see how things evolve over the next months, or even years, avoids this risk.

Additionally, the Noda cabinet may soon be history, possibly replaced by an administration led by a failed ex-premier (Shinzo Abe) who deemed it a good idea to pray at Yasukuni Shrine earlier this month.   Taking a proactive course on China policy requires stable and high-quality leadership, something which is lacking in Tokyo.

SEEK A COMPROMISE:    Giving up control of the islands is not in the cards.  However, Japan could seek to accept some Chinese demands.    This could include  looking at various forms of joint development, revising fishing zones, etc. 

The advantage of such a strategy is that it would test the proposition that the Communist Party is not interested in drastically altering the status quo but had to react when the “nationalization” of the three islands made it lose face.   If this hypothesis is true, a limited amount of concessions could settle the issue.   Given the importance for all concerned to defuse the situation, the cost-benefit ratio of such a strategy would be positive. 

If it turned out that no amount of Japanese concessions bought peace, then we would all know that Chinese Communist Party's intent.   However, given the domestic politics in Tokyo, implementation of such a policy would be tricky in the absence of a charismatic prime minister trusted by a large majority of the electorate.

GO ON THE OFFENSIVE:    In both 2010 and 2012, Beijing crossed the line of accepted norms.  It unleashed economic warfare against Japan (in 2010 with the rare earths and delays in customs, in 2012 through physical attacks on Japanese assets in China, state-sponsored cancellations of travel, slowdowns in import processing, etc.).  So there is an argument for demonstrating that there is a price to pay.

A strategic offensive would have two prongs.  The diplomatic part would be Japanese support for a territorial status quo to end once and for all territorial disputes.  Japan would acknowledge the full sovereignty of South Korea over Takeshima (Dokto) and of Russia over the Northern Territories (the southern Kuriles).   China would then be seen as the only troublemaker, since it would be the only remaining regional actor with territorial claims (Taiwan would too, but its role in the Senkaku crisis is obviously less critical) and improve relations with Seoul (and perhaps Moscow).

The economic offensive could have several pillars.  Japanese customs would slow down the processing of Chinese imports, focusing on those which can easily be sourced from other locations. Chinese airlines and tour operators that bring tourists from Japan to China could see their operations subjected to unfortunately lengthy tax audits, inspections, and other bureaucratic hurdles. 

In some cases, Japan is the only source of high-tech components for China-based exporters. In selected cases, these exports could be slowed down, focusing on those that are vital for Chinese state-owned corporations and businesses owned by senior party officials and their families.  

Such an ambitious strategy could signal Beijing that there are costs to aggressive behavior.  In particular, it would have the advantage of preventing future miscalculations on China’s part by deterring the Communist Party from further escalation with Japan.  If one believes that China is on a road that will lead to war with the U.S. and its allies, making a stand now could ensure peace in the future by forcing Beijing to see how costly its objectives are and demonstrating Japanese resolve backed by the U.S. 

All of these three options have advantages and disadvantages.   The first one differs from the other two in terms of the requirements for implementation.   It does not require particularly talented leadership, whereas the others demand first-rate actors in Japan's cabinet.   The last one, and to some extent the "compromise” would also entail very close cooperation with the United States, but the “do nothing” option could be accomplished through normal working level channels with Washington.

Robert Dujarric is Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

December 18, 2013 at 14:58

This article is laughable!
Everyone knows the southern Kuriles is immensely more valuable than Dioyutai..
Japan has no intention to give them up.

December 8, 2012 at 01:02

John what you say is incorrect. Japan will respect what the ICJ says.
what Japan can't do however is *raise* this with the ICJ, as it currently administers the islands and cases can only be brought forwards by nations that wish to challenge. Japan cannot challenge itself…

November 25, 2012 at 22:43

Nice idea, but given China's unilateral aggressiveness and bullying these days, they'll just invade Taiwan and take everything by force. China's demographic timebomb can't kick in soon enough.

November 25, 2012 at 22:41

Absolutely NO doubt who the aggressor is now…just ask ANY country in Southeast Asia.

November 1, 2012 at 14:03

@Robert Dujarric,
Maybe the sovereignity issue can be ambiguous in 19th Century in Asia, people only interprete the common practice by Western country in favor of their territory claim. But current issue with Diaoyu Dao sure is fault from Japan side, think you're trading something do not belongs to you, trade for what? Ownership, question is exactly which ownership Japanese government /An unknown Japanese citizen have on this dispute island? Can't this insult Chinese people?
If it's common practice in US to trade other's belonging, we'll be very happy to enjoy this profitable business:)

November 1, 2012 at 00:11

"Of the "big 3" allies, China was the only one with territorial demand in the said Declaratio." Yes, maybe China is the only one of the "big 3" allies, when you refer to US and UK, which one is in Europe, another in North American, but China is close to Japan, we can have territory issue with Japan while the other two can not. Don't forget Japanese claim every pierce of land their troop occupied during the war, this point is very clear for your US when your leader ask them to relinquish the Chinese territory they occupied. Japanese can not go UK and US for any territory claim.
Besides, I know USSR occupied Japanese territory after WWII, I show my condolense to Japanese for this as I think that's their land for sure, they should get it back from Russia,  though I know to ask an inch of land back from Russia is always a hard task, don't know the price tag Russian ask.

sam yang
October 31, 2012 at 06:01

This is the real reason for this conflict. Japan do not want to accept the surrentder, do not think be defeated by allies especially China. So Japan want to restart WWII to take over Chinese territory again.
However, today is year 2012 not 1912. If Japan want go to war again, wipe out this aggressor from the map.

October 30, 2012 at 17:46

I'm still of the opinion that Japans best course of action is to relinquish the islands TO TAIWAN, along with a nice fat acknowledgement of them as a separate sovereign country, and the legitimate successor govt with whom all treaties were signed at the end of WW2. 
Its not like the Japanese have any intentions of tapping the natural resources there (at least as far as anyone has mentioned)… This seems like it would hand any problems over to Taiwan, avoid giving china the "first foot in the door" for the other islands in the area, AND give them a nice fat slap in the face for being unreasonable about the whole business.

Joey Yung
October 29, 2012 at 12:09

Matt and Michael:
Have you ever heard of the First Sino-Japnese War of 1894-1895? Ever heard of the Unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki? Ever heard of the Second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945 and the Pacific War 1941-1945? All territories outside of Japan's home islands are seized by their aggressive militarism. For Japan laying claims to the Diaoyu Island is equivilent of Germany laying claims on Gdansk, which is a Polish terriotry. So I suggest both of you to study history before assuming rumours on who is the aggressor

Be Way
October 29, 2012 at 04:45

The problem is not China but you yourself.     I can see that you have been commenting a lot of bias and meaningless comments about China using Taiwan as your whorehouse.  
What China has done so far in claiming Diaoyu Islands and Taiwan as its sovereign lands, is both reasonable and legitimate.    On Okinawa, it's only your wild and baseless imagination that insanely accused China for something that has no basis. 

October 27, 2012 at 20:59

Matt and Michael have hit the nail on the head: the recent escalations are Beijing-initiated and any fault for the consequences rests solely with China.
China is pushing spurious territorial 'claims' simultaneously all over the region because it can. Its economic boom is fuelling a rapidly expanding military for no other purpose than to greedily gobble up as much territory and resources as possible.  China said nary a word about the Senkakus and had even acknowledged Japan's control/sovereignty over them UNTIL it became apparent that there may be material resources surrounding the islands.
Japan is only reacting as any nation faced with an aggressive, hysterical, nationalistic, propoganda fuelled expansionist-minded neighbour would: by seeking to protect what is legitimately its territory. In fact, Japan has reacted to China's numerous and quite frankly outrageous provocations with remarkable and commendable restraint and has behaved admirably throughout, which is more than anyone can say for China.
The longer this goes on, the more China is exposed as the real aggressor, the real bully not only vis-a-vis Japan but towards the whole region. China's image problem is entirely of its own making and thus its responsibility to resolve.

Robert Dujarric
October 27, 2012 at 20:29

The anonymous poster (too bad that so many posts are from individuals who chose to hide their identity) thinks that the islands are Chinese.  This is most debatable.  In fact, given the lack of modern definitions of maritime sovereignty in East Asia in the 19th century, it's probably impossible to whom they should belong.   What is clear, is that the PRC has done a lot to make the situation worse.   Tokyo and Washington's task, is to freeze the conflict, wait for calmer times, and figure out how to best lower the thermostat in Beijing.   Much depends on internal Chinese developments, over which outside powers have little influence, however. 

Robert Dujarric
October 27, 2012 at 20:26

I do not disagree that one needs to do "something" about Beijing, though what the "something" should be is a complex question.  But though China is indeed the source of the tensions over the Senkaku (Diaoyu), this doesn't mean that Tokyo and Washington need to figure out what policies are the most effective to handle both the crisis in particular and China in general.   One also needs to think about what a post-Communist China will be, as it would be wrong to assume that Communist Party rule will be eternal.  

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief