It’s not as if the issue hasn’t been on the political agenda. From April 11 to 13, 2007, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made the first visit by a senior Chinese leader to Japan in seven years, with Chinese representatives at the time characterizing his visit as an effort to help thaw Sino-Japanese relations. The Chinese government had frozen high-level summits with Japanese leaders outside the context of multilateral gatherings in order to protest Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined (Koizumi’s successors have refrained from publicly visiting the shrine).
Among other things, Wen pledged to make the East China Sea a ‘sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.’ Soon after that statement, in July 2007, leaders of the Japanese Coast Guard and the Chinese State Oceanic Administration established a hotline between the two organizations. In June 2008, China and Japan finally agreed on a joint development project, in a 2,700 kilometre area south of the Longjing Field, pending a solution to their dispute. Yet for all the fanfare over this project, neither this, nor the talks that started this July over an international treaty on jointly developing gas fields, have made much progress.
So who’s to blame? Japanese officials have accused the Chinese of violating the agreed moratorium by unilaterally drilling for natural gas. The Chinese have for their part denied this and have postponed the next round of bilateral talks on their maritime dispute.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The risk of further escalation was underscored Saturday, when the Japanese government protested after a Chinese State Oceanic Administration ship tried to prevent a Japanese Coast Guard vessel from surveying the ocean 280 kilometres northwest of Japan's southern Okinawa island.
The problem with finding a resolution lays in large part with the fact that neither government wants to look weak to domestic and foreign audiences by appearing especially conciliatory. At home, nationalists in both China and Japan have taken up the cause of the islands, while Chinese policymakers will almost certainly must be worried about how concessions related to the East China Sea would affect its position in other disputes.
The potential for nationalist agitation was particularly evident in April 2005, when anti-Japanese protests in China morphed from a boycott of Japanese goods into large-scale demonstrations, sometimes violent, against Japan (Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and controversial textbook revisions only added fuel to the fire).
At the time, the Chinese government claimed that the protests were organized spontaneously at the grassroots level, and allowed them to continue. However, some observers believe that Chinese authorities may actually have orchestrated them. Regardless, even though the protesters were eventually dispersed in the interests of social stability, the Chinese government, perhaps concerned not to antagonize aroused Chinese nationalists by looking weak, refused Japanese demands for an apology.