China Power

Tensions in the East China Sea: Here To Stay

Recent Features

China Power

Tensions in the East China Sea: Here To Stay

Why misconceptions, nationalism, and strategic advantage give China little incentive to seek compromise.


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.