Tensions in the East China Sea: Here To Stay
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Tensions in the East China Sea: Here To Stay



Tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are still simmering – with fallout mounting daily. Despite talks between high-ranking diplomats from both sides—many obstacles remain that prevent the two from reaching an agreement on the issue. For China, a number of factors converge to make it highly unlikely that it will back down from its tough posture without considerable concessions from Tokyo.

The first is a prevailing view in China that alleges that the Noda government colluded with the nationalistic Tokyo Governor Ishihara in plotting the “nationalization” of the islands. Many Chinese commentators conclude the “nationalization” was part of a calculated strategy. Such an allegation, however, contradicts the reality of Japanese politics.

As MIT Professor Richard J. Samuels points out: “The governor and the prime minister come from very different corners of the Japanese political universe—the former [Governor Ishihara] being far more to the nationalist right, and the latter (even though the son of a soldier) being the leader of a nominally center-left party.  Moreover, Governor Ishihara was eager to see his son, Nobuteru, become head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the leading opposition party.”

In other words, the allegations emanating from China greatly overestimates the Japanese government’s ability to act as a unitary actor. Again, Samuels notes that “judging from the recent inability of the Japanese government to devise and deploy a coherent policy toward nuclear energy, crediting the government with having a ‘strategy’ may be far too generous.  It has been a long time since the Japanese government has been able to act strategically.”

Secondly, the Chinese side also favors a time-honored belief that right-wing forces are on the rise in Japan. In a September speech, for instance, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Le Yucheng cited a series of Japanese provocations regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that occurred prior to the actual “purchase,” as well as the most recent denials by Japanese politicians of Tokyo’s atrocities during World War II. From these examples, Le concluded that right-wing forces are “gaining momentum” in Japan and warned that these “highly dangerous developments…should put us on the alert.”

However, this view might not reflect the realities of Japanese politics and society, and tends to be overly alarming. Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put the point well when he calls this view “a cartoon image of the way that the Japanese political system operates.” Swaine goes on to argue that “The right wing in Japan…is weak. They don’t have the power both politically in the government and amongst the Japanese people to push forward a muscular, aggressive, and assertive foreign policy for the Japanese government.”

Samuels concurs. On the one hand, he points to a recent MIT study that showed that the kinds of nationalism “associated with national pride related to technology, pacifism, trade, and democracy… have all been more prominent.”  At the same time, he rightly notes that the sort of nationalism “associated with the Yasukuni Shrine, ‘comfort women,’ and militarism has consistently been the lowest.”  He goes on to argue, “Despite all the sensational headlines, efforts to revisit the Kono apology on the comfort women issue and efforts to change Article Nine of the constitution have all been frustrated by popular opposition…there are always strident voices in any democratic system, but in Japan the balance of power and the national identity are, I think, firmly planted in opposition to constitutional change and to militarism.”

Thirdly, a “common understanding” that arguably existed between the two countries over control of the islands might not be as firmly believed on both sides as the Chinese do. Part of the reason for the unprecedented Chinese reaction to Japan’s nationalization of the islands is that they believe Noda’s act derailed the status quo that had governed relations between the two countries over the Islands. In the dawn of the normalization of the Sino-Japan relationship, China proposed dealing with the dispute according to the principle of “shelving the disputes and developing jointly.”  During his historic 1978 trip to Japan to sign the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Deng Xiaoping also recommitted to setting aside the island issue for future generations to address.

However, the existence of such a “common understanding” is not without questions. To begin with, if such a “common understanding” does exist, why wouldn’t the Japanese government even recognize the existence of the dispute? Additionally, as Professor Mike M. Mochizuki of George Washington University notes, even if such an understanding exists, “The Japanese can argue that the Chinese have been gradually changing this status quo through the 1992 Territorial Sea Law and the subsequent Chinese encroachment in the disputed area.” Hence, Japan is not alone in breaching such a “common understanding.”

Beside the above misunderstandings, China’s position on the Islands is also strongly influenced by pressure from nationalistic domestic audiences. At the very least, Beijing cannot afford to appear softer than Taiwan on sovereignty issues, as Taiwan has also protested notably strong this time. Mochizuki opines, “Insofar as Taiwan activists have been engaging in protest actions about Japan’s control over the islands, leaders in Beijing will be compelled not to appear more conciliatory toward Japan than Taiwan.”

Furthermore, from a realist perspective, although the recent violent protests have quickly squandered years of China’s efforts to convey a “peaceful” image of itself abroad, the crisis wasn’t without its own benefits for China. Specifically, as the status quo has been shaken, so too has Japan’s de-facto control of the islands. Since Japan forced China to address the issue by unilaterally announcing the nationalization of the islands, Chinese marine surveillance ships and fishery ships have frequently patrolled the disputed area, and military vessels have been present in the area at various points. In this regard, even if Tokyo now decides it is willing to acknowledge that a territorial dispute exists, China would have to relinquish its newly-acquired “freedom” to operate in the waters in order to return to the status quo ante.

The combination of these factors—the belief that Japan is in the wrong and right-wing forces are on the rise in Japan, Chinese leaders need to take a stronger line than Taiwan, and Beijing’s greater leverage since the dispute began—all mean that Beijing is unlikely to budge without considerable concessions from Tokyo. Political timing is also key– a highly charged political environment on both sides makes concessions difficult if not impossible.  Unless an accidental escalation occurs out at sea, we are likely to see tensions persist, albeit within carefully managed parameters, well beyond the 18th Party Congress.

Yaping Wang is Program Manager of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed are the author's own.


October 26, 2012 at 19:30

communist government always keeps its people ignorant so it is easy to control and use them , china is the symbol of that bad , LOL , its people now think it is strong but the real is its most war ship do not have air conditioning and heater . in summer to open up window is its air condition LOL , in the winter it burns charcoal for heating in every room , except the the engine room , LOL . stfu po or china 

Oro Invictus
October 26, 2012 at 00:52

While I respect your opinion, perhaps you could highlight this "boundless conjecture" I am engaging in? Because, aside from trying to suggest a reason behind netizen comments and determine how such things influence Beijing's response, I see nothing which goes overmuch into pure speculation or the like; if you'd like to list the specific points I made which you consider pure speculation, I can explain to you the basic reasoning and evidence for each point. Indeed, right here I can provide a sample of Chinese netizen comments (not the full breadth of the ones I drew from, but a good representative sample) from which I began forming such a hypothesis: http://www.chinasmack.com/2012/stories/japanese-rescue-chinese-cargo-ship-crew-netizens-suspicious.html
That said, I agree I have engaged in conjecture, but so too has this and most articles on The Diplomat. Conjecture is an integral part of attempting to isolate, define, and solve various problems as they are presented, providing theories by which we can attempt to interpret various events.

Verbosity Is Not Quality
October 25, 2012 at 20:14

While one is entitled to one's own opinion, this is just speculation and pure conjecture. Sorry, oro, just too much hypothetical assumptions in your opinion for one to digest.  Lenghty wordy opinion does not necessary imply substance.  Most of the time its to the contrary. Clarity and truth seems to be a rare commodity these days.

You need to have a big picture
October 25, 2012 at 10:47

One thing you need to understand.  According to the existing international laws & precedences, Japan has the reasonable claim to the islands, period.  That is why China will not risk taking this matter to ICJ.  Another thing to consider is, why CCP is so eager to obtain these islands, and what would be the consequence of Japan accepting China's claim.  This is not just a matter of small islands, or whatever natural resources lies under the surrounding seas, but it is about giving China a strategic military foothold into the Pacifc.  They are already talking about Okinawa being part of China, too. 
Oh, wait, I have also read some Westerners who claim that North America was actually discovered by Chines thousands of years ago (which may be true).  So does that mean all the Pacific Islands including Hawaii are also Chinese territories?

Much cooler headed than you
October 25, 2012 at 10:38

Such statements mentioned from PLA officials make it even more difficult for Japanese government to sit down and discuss the issue with the Chinese, who act like angry toddlers. 

John Chan
October 25, 2012 at 08:17

@marie lafleu,
Do you mean China cannot kick out those brutal imperialist aggressors and throw out their imposed inhumane unequal treaties and be an independent nation having its own mind? Getting rid of those predatory parasitic imperialists, Fascists and their greedy lackeys is disrupting existing power system (written by those imperialists), and international relations/laws; you surly have twisted understanding of liberty, equality and justice. I guess you must regard Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela as terrorists who destroyed the caste system that entitles the Whiteman to enslave the Africans as divine right.
Japan is an unapologetic war criminals; as a defeated Fascist it is only allowed to keep its four islands as a retribution for its sin, yet under the USA shielding it is behaving as all those crimes and atrocities have never happened; it is still occupying other nations’ land like a Fascist. Why isn’t the American reining in the bandit like a world policemen should? Instead the Americans are siding with the criminal smearing the victim? Is the American on the take like the police chief gunned down by Michael Corleone in the Godfather?

Juan Garcia
October 25, 2012 at 05:23

@marie lafleu,
China is not the aggressor in the South China Sea, or more accurately put, it does not behave any more aggressively than some other countries in the region with regarding to how they pursue their territory claims. That is, if one can see it objectively.
Revenge is a strong sentiment, but it is just a short-term thing. Looking at the Sion-Japanese relation from a historical perspective, one can easily see that whenever Japan becomes the stronger one in the region, the first thing it does is to invade China, via Korea peninsula usually, brutally always.The same cannot be said about China. All the argument about Japan being peace loving after ww2 or having a democratic government pales in the face of history.
It is generic to the Japanese that they are a proud, smart, hard working, highly disciplined people, all the ingredients to make a great power. The only thing they lack is a large piece of land, a land that contains endless natural and human resources. Time and time again they made the same choice to solve this problem — taking from someone who has it. That someone has always been, and will always be China. So yes, accusing Japan for its nationalizing of the islands is just an excuse, China needs to suppress Japan.

Andrew Thomson
October 24, 2012 at 09:23

It strikes a few of us here in Japan that Hu Jintao seemed to go out of his way to take offence at Noda's measure to head off Governor Ishihara buying the islands for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Then just this week it's made clear that Hu will continue as Chairman of the Military Commission. Why? Well, because of the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, of course! Beautifully manufactured excuse to assume what is known in Japanese as insei 院政、or government by a cloistered emperor.
Regarding Japanese rightwing political influence, what Mr Swaine argues is generally accurate, at the moment. But politics is never static, and if there is momentum among the ordinary people in Japan then it's very clearly heading rightwards, pushed hard by the aggression over the islands. Combine this with the endless suffocation of a high yen in the currency wars now on foot, coming job losses in manufacturing because of the Chinese market disruption, and you have a recipe for some surprising change in Japan. This country was the scene of a good deal of disruption and violence from the 1950s through the 1970s. A lot of people forget that.

Crux of Matter
October 23, 2012 at 17:38

What a lot of baloney.  Crux of the matter is the Daioyus are Chinese territory.  All else are secondary.  The Noda govrenment is not being very honest about the whole matter.  No self respecting person or county would allow other people or country to take possession of your territory.  Period.  Noda made a mistake and a very big one and he does not know how to back down without losing face.  Ishihara is not that great nor powerful that the japanese government cannot handle him.  There are just too much diversions from the real issues and nonsense clouding the core issue by Yaping. Others less kindly disposed would term it BS.

marie lafleu
October 23, 2012 at 09:46

You analysed China as though they have politically evolved into a power system of gracious give-and-take, that they have years of carefully studied / respected international relations / laws, that a shared world is its vision of the future. No! China is newly powerful nation with its psychological profile filled with ancient peaks and recent humiliations. They have to revenge the past "wrongs" and achieve domination they deseve before slowing down. Their reaction in the East China Sea has nothing to do with Japan's nationalization of the island nor Taiwan's being more aggressive, nor the sense of status quo being shaken up…. Look at how China is behaving in the South China Sea: no other claimants nationalize anything, no one shakes up the status quo but China. China is the only agrressor  there with their fishing boats, armed patrol and navy.

chinese overseas
October 23, 2012 at 04:19

diaoyu and ryu kyu belong to china , Japanese stole from china

Oro Invictus
October 23, 2012 at 03:41

Considering domestic audiences, I suspect that the greatest rage for PRC citizens is less any real investment in the notion of "rightful ownership" over the disputed isles and more derivative of a sense of "impotence" for the citizenry. Reading Chinese netizen comments about the issue, one frequently finds the pervasive belief that Beijing is too timid and/or powerless to wrest control away from Japan and is now seeking to placate them in any way possible. 
Indeed, even the recent rescue of Chinese sailors by Japanese rescuers is being portrayed by a significant number of commentators as being the product of collusion between the PRC and Japanese governments; a plot, as it were, to "soothe" antipathy towards Japan and make the citizenry more willing to accept Japan's control of the islands in the absence of Beijing being willing to "enforce its rightful claim". Others have engaged in alternative, albeit no less driven by a sense of lack of power, lines of thinkings, claiming they would rather kill themselves or let themselves die rather than be rescued by the Japanese (i.e. suicide being the last recourse in the face of something one is powerless against). That such notions have emerged is not, by itself, unusual (indeed, reading comments on the Fox News site will show similarity absurd comments), but their prevalence is what is most significant. 
This is of supreme importance as the root of such feelings of impotence undoubtedly derives from the lack of citizen power under the CPC adjoined with the narrative of victimization Beijing has long instilled in the populace. Together, they fundamentally mean that the true rage of the citizens derives more from their own frustration over their inability to affect their own world than any hypothetical cares over some islands they have not nor likely will ever step foot on. This, in turn, means Beijing is likely to continue pressing the matter as, like I argue is the case with the SCS and Taiwan (despite the sheer unlikelihood of Beijing ever gaining control of either), it allows the CPC to redirect citizens' attention, but more specifically in the case of the Senkakus it prevents people from taking their frustration over their lack of power out on what is truly the root of such feelings; to not do anything would inevitably make the citizenry becoming introspective upon losing this distraction, and history shows that nothing leads to regime-change as a group of people who feel they have no power under the current system.

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