More and more, the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea is starting to look like the train wreck that everybody sees coming but feels powerless to prevent. Unless cooler heads prevail, and do so soon, the escalation — now a weekly affair — could turn quite nasty indeed.
The signs were not encouraging at the third Sino-U.S. Colloquium in Hong Kong on Sunday, where Takujiro Hamada, a former Japanese deputy foreign minister, read a speech written by Yachi Shotaro, the top foreign policy adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. While there was initial cause for hope, as this was the first time the Japanese sent delegates to the forum, which also counted two retired four-star U.S. generals, the speech sparked a strong response from the Chinese.
While effort should be made to encourage the Japanese and Chinese to engage in dialogue to defuse tensions, relations between the two countries have deteriorated to a point where the two sides often talk past one another. Consequently, rather than foster cooperation, meetings can have the opposite effect by exacerbating the situation. This is exactly what transpired at the forum this weekend.
In his speech, Yachi, who is widely regarded as the architect of Abe’s foreign policy, warned Beijing that its increasingly assertive behavior risked alienating its neighbors and accused China of asserting its claims “by force” through the dispatch of surveillance aircraft and vessels near the disputed islets (three maritime surveillance vessels entered the disputed waters on Monday, the latest in a long string of incursions). Such actions, he said, constituted a breach of the international order.
“Now it is time for you to be content about who you are and what you have accomplished. Now it is time for you to be a good neighbor of Japan, a good neighbor to the Philippines and a good neighbor to Vietnam,” the speech said, in reference to China’s other disputes in the South China Sea, and coming very close to accusing China of revisionism.
The fact that Yachi’s speech was delivered on Chinese territory added to the perceived insult, with retired PLA major-general Pan Zhenqiang, now a government adviser, calling it “very rude and arrogant,” and comparing the affront to the attitude — yes, the wounds of old are resurfacing yet again — adopted by Japanese militarists in the 1930s and 1940s.
While analysts could spend hours debating whether Yachi’s speech, or Pan’s reaction, were warnings or threats, at the end of the day, what should have served as a means to lower tensions (surely the participation of the Japanese at the forum was the result of “goodwill” on both sides) ended up doing the opposite.
Worryingly, some media are starting to report specific actions that would be taken during hostilities. Referring to an article in the Sankei Shimbun, the Want Daily wrote that the Japanese military allegedly had plans to coordinate with the U.S. to sink China’s only aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, presumably to destroy what is regarded as a symbol of China’s growing military clout.
Although the veracity of, and the motives behind, such news are difficult to ascertain, real or sensationalistic reports increase the level of noise and create an atmosphere of greater hostility. Already reports that Japanese aircraft could fire tracer rounds to warn off intruding planes prompted a sharp response from a Chinese military analyst, who said that were such a “provocation” to occur, “China wouldn’t stint on responding and not allow them to fire the second shot.”
Once belligerents get caught in the vicious circle, efforts to de-escalate become all the more difficult, with signals getting interpreted through an increasingly narrow frame of mind, both among officials and a public that is inherently more receptive to hardline rhetoric and action.
Beijing’s fear that Tokyo and the U.S. are conspiring against it were strengthened when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed on Jan. 18 Japan’s administration of the Senkakus and the responsibility of the U.S. to intervene in any conflict over the islets, which prompted a strongly worded rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday. Xinhua News Agency also weighed in the same day, calling Clinton’s remarks “exceedingly wrong” and added that “the chaotic U.S. foreign policies” would embolden “right-wing” Japanese elements and “intensify tensions.” Again turning to historical grievances, the editorial wrote: “U.S. explicit endorsement of a right-leaning Japan is sure to raise concerns among Asian countries, many of which still hold bitter memories of Japan’s wartime atrocities and are casting a wary eye on the newly installed hawkish administration in Tokyo.”
It doesn’t take much to realize that armed conflict between the world’s second- and third-largest economies (with possible intervention by the first) would have devastating consequences. The leaderships in Tokyo and Beijing know this. But so did the leaders of countries that, throughout history, didn’t do enough to change the signals in time to avoid the inevitable. By allowing the situation to spiral downwards, whether for domestic gain or through inattention, politicians create an environment that becomes increasingly conducive to misinterpretation and accidents.
This is the situation East Asia finds itself in right now, and there are very few signs that the participants are actively seeking to alter the course.