Features | Politics | East Asia

Why Nationalism is Driving China and Japan Apart

After an extended period of calm, leaders in Tokyo and Beijing are again allowing their relations to be dictated by domestic politics.

Nationalism once again threatens to undermine the relative calm in the China-Japan relationship that has prevailed since the 2010 Senkaku crisis.

Although Chinese leaders are the oft-cited pawns of nationalist agitators, since April Japanese leaders appear to be seduced by the efforts of the controversial Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro to buy the disputed Senkaku Islands. If the sale is completed when the government’s current lease expires, it could trigger a potentially devastating crisis in Sino-Japanese relations. Japanese leaders seem unable or unwilling to condemn Ishihara’s efforts, which have unsurprisingly triggered assertive responses from China.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. on April 17, Ishihara suggested that his government might be interested in purchasing four of the Senkaku islands from their private owners. This is not the first time nationalists in Japan have triggered crises over the islands. In 1996 members of Nihon Seinensha constructed a lighthouse on Kita Kojima to support Japan’s use of the islands as basepoints in marking its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which sparked a six month crisis over the islands. Following that crisis however, leaders in Beijing and Tokyo agreed not to be provoked by nationalist provocations. Thus, when outspoken nationalist Diet member Nishimura Shingo landed on Uotsuri-shima in 1997, then Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Cui Tiankai noted that his actions “contravened the policy of the Japanese government.”

Such provocations from Ishihara are also not new. In the past, Tokyo’s governor gave a street address to Okinotorishima, an islet 1740km southeast of Tokyo that serves as the basis for Japan’s EEZ claim into the Pacific. China disputes Japan’s claim that the feature entitles it support its claims to an EEZ or an extended continental shelf. Although that effort was widely regarded as absurd, this time Ishihara has stumbled on an idea that seems to resonate with some portion of the Japanese population. Donations to fund the purchase of the islands have poured in, totaling 1.4 billion yen at the end of the July.

In a disturbing sign, it appears that the idea has traction not only at the popular level, but also among political elites in Japan. The LDP campaign platform supports the nationalization of the islands, which combined with the outpouring of public support, has forced Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko to consider the proposal. When Tokyo’s Ambassador to China Niwa Uichiro pointed out how destabilizing the notion of purchasing the islands could be in an interview with the Financial Times he was quickly isolated by Foreign Minister Genba Koichiro and Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu. That he was publicly marginalized is a sign of the disturbing trends taking place in Tokyo.  Although local governments in Japan have conveyed anxiety over China’s claims to the islands in the past – most recently politicians from Ishigaki visited the islands – the fact the central government is supporting Ishihara suggests a shift in the tenor of Japanese debates about China. Sino-Japanese relations have rarely been an election issue in Japan, but the apparent consensus on the wisdom of buying the islands between the conservative LDP, the centrist DPJ and the extreme Ishihara suggest that support for a confrontational China policy may be gaining currency in Japan. This may set the stage for further grandstanding in the future.

Ishihara’s proposal, and the reluctance of Japanese leaders to distance themselves from it, has provoked predictably harsh responses from China. In addition to prompt and swift condemnation from the foreign ministry and state media, China has sent other signals of its displeasure. In mid-July three Chinese fisheries patrol boats entered the islands’ territorial sea following the announcement by Japan’s central government that it too would seek to buy the islands. In addition to this state response, in an interview with the Global Times Tong Zeng, one of China’s most outspoken advocates of its maritime claims, detailed a request he made to the State Oceanic Administration to lease the islands for the development of tourism.

This turn of events is a shame because it obscures the fact that there continues to be ongoing cooperation between China and Japan to prevent conflict. China and Japan have tentatively outlined a notification mechanism that increases transparency between ships and aircraft on both sides. The two have agreed to notify each other of routes in advance, create a hotline to communicate more quickly, and to employ internationally standard radio frequencies.  This is precisely the kind of conflict prevention mechanism that is needed between two naval rivals. In sign of the momentum behind this initiative, these talks were one of a few areas of contact not severed by the 2010 crisis over the Senkaku islands.

Leaders in Japan and China have previously exercised the necessary political leadership to prevent conflict between them. The ongoing commitment to developing mechanisms to avoid conflict at sea is an important sign.  Leader on both sides must continue to resist pressure from hardliners in their respective countries who seek to undermine cooperation.

James Manicom is a Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at The University of Waterloo.