Tensions in the East China Sea are worsening by the day, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern a path towards renewed calm. There appear to be nothing but choppy seas head.
Comparisons to autumn of 2010, when China-Japan relations were similarly fraught after a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku islands that September, are less useful than they might appear at first glance. Indeed, the differences between the two September confrontations provide more reasons for concern than their similarities provide hope for a peaceful outcome.
While it is true that the 2010 collision occurred at a time of growing regional concern over China’s policy on territorial disputes, the collision served as a spark for an acute bilateral row. Given the nature of the incident, the quarrel was more easily resolved and required only that Tokyo release to China the arrested fishing boat captain. In this case, Tokyo caved under Chinese pressure, which was most effectively applied via a ban on rare earth element exports to Japan. While the Japanese government knew it would come under domestic fire for doing so and that the decision might embolden China in the future, Tokyo determined that prosecuting the (reportedly intoxicated) captain wasn’t worth the trouble, that Japan had too much to lose from a further escalation of Chinese economic warfare, and that it could release him without substantially undermining its sovereignty claims. Beijing, in turn, allowed rare earth exports to resume and tensions quietly subsided.
Conditions today are much different. While one might point to Japan’s decision to nationalize three of the Senkakus as a proximate cause of the latest crisis, the fact is that strains have been building over this very matter since April, when Tokyo prefecture governor Shintaro Ishihara announced his government’s plan to purchase the islands. With the central government’s announcing its intent to make the purchase, simmering tensions reached a running boil. And though Ishihara can take credit for maneuvering the national government into nationalizing the islands, Beijing’s decision to make an issue over the potential sale (instead of simply asserting that any such sale would have no bearing on the fact of Chinese sovereignty) may have forced Japan’s hand.
In the face of pressure from the nationalist right and with upcoming parliamentary elections, Tokyo could not afford to once again submit to Chinese demands. Had Japan decided not to go forward with the purchase, it would have left the door open for Ishihara’s Tokyo prefectural government to do so—an outcome the central government, worried that Ishihara would engage in further provocations, wanted to avoid—and would have emboldened China, while (at least in Beijing’s eyes) weakening its own sovereignty claim.
Unlike in 2010, there are no obvious steps for Japan to take in pursuit of de-escalation, which Tokyo clearly wants. Foregoing the purchase is not a viable option at this point, nor is ceasing regular patrols of the waters around the Senkakus, which Japan has effectively controlled for the past four decades.
Beijing, meanwhile, seems intent on further escalation. Its decision to send patrol boats to the disputed territory after the sale was announced was not designed to restore calm. Nor will the fleet of 1,000 Chinese fishing boats headed to the islands, if reports of their sailing are true. Beijing’s failure to protect Japanese factories and businesses, meanwhile, hints at a willingness to once again resort to economic pressure; the press is already printing calls for a boycott of Japanese goods.
More troubling still is that China may also simply be incapable of adopting a more conciliatory posture at the moment. As a new generation of leaders and their elder patrons jockey for position in the midst of China’s ongoing once-a-decade leadership transition, calls for restraint in dealing with Japan are unlikely to win contenders coveted seats on the Politburo or Standing Committee. Being tough on Tokyo—much like being tough on Taiwan—is always a safe political bet in the Chinese Communist Party. The outpouring of popular nationalist sentiment only serves to further bind the leadership’s hands, even as authorities goad on public protests to serve their own ends.
With September 18—the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, which launched the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931—now in the rearview mirror, Beijing may be better able to take steps to rein in public outrage and soften its own actions in the East China Sea. But if Chinese patrol vessels don’t soon head home from waters around the Senkakus and if the Chinese fishing fleet doesn’t turn back for the mainland, tensions may boil over.
The longer Chinese paramilitary ships remain on station in disputed waters, with Japanese ships following their every move, the greater the likelihood of an unwanted incident at sea and even greater escalation. The arrival of hundreds of civilian fishing boats to that mix will only serve to add powder to what is already a well-packed keg.
An ominous confluence—of domestic political dynamics in Japan and China, an already fraught international environment, and the Mukden Incident anniversary—has created a perfect storm, in which the current confrontation became all but impossible to avoid and extremely difficult to sail out of. But with an outside push, it might be possible for cooler heads to prevail.
Publicly, the United States has called for calm, restraint, and peaceful resolution and has sensibly asserted its own neutrality on the sovereignty disputes. Privately, senior American officials should be reminding Hu Jintao that Japan is America’s most important ally in the region; that when push comes to shove, U.S. neutrality will be tested; and that the U.S. president would be hard pressed to leave Japan to fend for itself in a time of great need.
The Obama administration has long extolled the virtues of quiet diplomacy, especially when it comes to China. The president should take this opportunity to prove himself right.
Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.