Features | Diplomacy | Security | East Asia

Structural Distrust: Undermining a Senkaku/Diaoyu Solution

When it comes to the East China Sea, it might be time to step back and look at the bigger picture.

By Jin Kai for

Tensions over a few rocks in the East China Sea – which the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese the Senkaku, and which both countries claim – erupted in 2012 when the Japanese government elected to nationalize three of the islands.

Leaving aside the abundant national resources in the surrounding waters, historical and political considerations have made this issue more complex than any other territorial dispute in East Asia. To China, the issue is an unbearable reminder of past Japanese imperialism. To Japan, the islands represent a strategic outpost in the first island chain, a critical component of its attempt to balance a rapidly rising China. For the U.S., meanwhile, maintaining a status quo that effectively means Japanese jurisdiction is part of a much broader regional strategy.

Origins of a Dispute

The Cairo Communiqué (or Cairo Declaration) is regarded as one of the most important documents concluded by the Allies prior to the end of World War II. In particular, it stated that Japan should be stripped of all territories it had taken in the Pacific and that it should return Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores to China.

Subsequently, however, China suffered division as a result of its Civil War, and the international community could not agree on which side should participate in the San Francisco Peace Conference. The Ryukyus and other islands, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu, were placed under U.S. trusteeship until 1971, when the U.S. decided to return to Japan the power of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the Ryukyu and Daito islands. The U.S. believed that the agreement included the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. For its part, China decried the deal, but elected to shelve the dispute and maintain the status quo, at least until the recent crisis.

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While China was officially quiet on the dispute, there was activity at the civilian level during this period. This ranged from the voicing of patriotic slogans to a number of landings on the islands. Chinese fishing boats continued to enter the local waters. Before 2010, the Japanese typically responded cautiously to these activities.

A May 1969 UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East Report identified potential oil and gas reserves in the disputed area, which obviously made the issue more complicated. Yet, both governments sought to maintain the status quo, despite clashes over fisheries and other issues. Behind this official stance, however, there was resentment. As the International Crisis Group puts it: “Due to the brutal Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s, sentiments over the status of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands run deeper in the Chinese psyche than any other territorial dispute in modern Chinese history, with the exception of Taiwan.”

Hence, when the Japanese government detained a Chinese fishing boat captain in 2010 and subsequently purchased three of the islets in 2012, China saw it as time to end its passive stance. Beijing stepped up patrols by China Marine Surveillance and the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the two largest Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies. Until that point, Sino-Japanese relations have been a relationship of what scholars have called “hot economics and cold politics.” No longer. The international community now worries about the possibility of a miscalculation that could lead to conflict. Their concerns are not misplaced. On December 13, 2012, Japan scrambled air force fighters to intercept a Chinese government plane, and in February 2013, Tokyo lodged a protest with Beijing over an incident in which a Chinese naval vessel locked its fire control radar on a Japanese warship.

A Gentlemen’s Agreement No More

In the 1970s, facing a growing schism with the Soviet Union, China sought to normalize relations with both the U.S. and Japan. For Japan, after two decades’ economic growth, China’s market potential was attractive. To facilitate a peace treaty, the two sides avoided wrangling over the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue.

In fact, China had its own problem, which it preferred wasn’t discussed: Although it claims legal right to the islands via historical discovery and effective occupation, there is a lack of evidence showing continuous effective control.

Hence, on October 25, 1978, Deng Xiaoping told then Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, “It is totally understandable that we have different views on some issues. For example, we have different opinions on the place that you call the Senkaku Islands and we call the Diaoyu Islands. It is wise to avoid this topic in negotiation. The younger generation will be wiser and we should regard our common interests as the priority.” Fukuda accepted the statement. This meeting, along with other announcements and speeches, is widely regarded – particularly by China – as a consensus to shelve the dispute.

This gentlemen’s agreement to leave the dispute to a younger generation made sense at the time, when peace, friendship and mutual benefits were priorities for both countries. But it was hardly going to withstand changing priorities in the region.

Japan, a key ally to a U.S. that is “pivoting” to Asia, is increasingly concerned about its giant neighbor, which became the world’s second largest economy in 2010, and particularly its rapidly expanding naval power. The jury is out on whether Deng’s “younger generation” is any wiser, but they are certainly more nationalistic.

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The Trigger Events

Thus, tensions were ready to erupt when Japan detained the Chinese captain in 2010, and then again when the Japanese government purchased three islets in 2012, something China regards as a flagrant humiliation. But there is more to it than those events. Responding to China’s rapid rise, Japan has accelerated its own military reforms. The current Japanese government is seeking to revise its peace constitution, giving itself the right to collective self-defense, and is deploying significant new naval vessels. Take the new DDH-183, a 22DDH-class destroyer that has been called an “aircraft carrier in disguise.” It has been named the “Izumo,” which reminds Chinese of the Japanese Navy warship of the same name that sailed during World War II. The Japan Times writes that the deployment reveals Japan’s determination “to retake any of the 2,500 remote isles in their proximity, including the Senkakus, should the need arise.”

In Andy Yee’s opinion, Japan is exerting a “quiet power” through its military strength, and the longer Japan manages to maintain the status quo, the more likely it is that its control will become internationally recognized under the principle in international law of “acquisitive prescription.” The administration of Shinzo Abe believes that Japan will have a better chance of winning the dispute by maintaining a hardline policy, with the support of the U.S.

The U.S. “Non-Position”

The U.S. takes no position on the sovereignty of Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. On March 24, 2004, Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman of U.S. Department of State reaffirmed that, “Sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is disputed. The U.S. does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This has been our longstanding view. We expect the claimants will resolve this issue through peaceful means and we urge all claimants to exercise restraint.”

At first blush, Washington’s neutral stance might seem appealing to China. The problem is that the position is de facto support for Japan’s administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the disputed islands. This right has been in place since the U.S. returned the territories to Japan on May 15, 1972. China worries that if Japan is still administering the islands in the 2020s, it will have maintained control for more than 50 years, giving it a much stronger case in the eyes of the international community.

China’s faith in the U.S. position is also tempered by the fact that Japan is a key American ally. There are strategic rationales for Washington to maintain its neutrality on the dispute combined with its position that Article 5 of U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. First, relations between mainland China and Taiwan are improving, and Taiwan may not be as important to the U.S. as it was before in containing or balancing against mainland China. Second, the ability of the Chinese navy to penetrate the first island chain has been rising rapidly. Hence, third, with shrinking budgets, it makes sense for the U.S. in East Asia to tactically move back to the second and even third island chains, while letting its ally Japan defend the first island chain. Finally, this approach may make sense for the U.S., since it reduces the risk of unnecessary direct military engagement with China in waters close to China’s coast.

China’s Response

Japan may argue that its military strengthening and deployment are reasonable responses to China’s military assertiveness in the East China Sea.

Indeed, over the past two decades, China’s defense budget has increased astronomically. Although it is still less than one-sixth of U.S. defense spending, China’s annual defense outlays for 2012 exceeded 100 billion U.S. dollars for the first time. Behind high-tech projects like the J-20, the development of an aircraft carrier, modernization and mobilization of nuclear weapons systems and investments in new areas like cyber-warfare, lies what most concerns the Chinese leadership: not an immediate conflict with a dominant U.S., but conflicts over the medium or long terms with neighbors, especially those arising out of territorial disputes.

Hence, backed by its military modernization, China has been practicing a strategy of “reactive assertiveness” in tackling the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. According  to the International Crisis Group, “Interpreting the Japanese government’s decision to purchase the islands as a unilateral change to the status quo, China implemented a series of pre-planned actions with the goal of changing the facts on the ground.”

This policy of “reactive assertiveness” is problematic. It simply underlines that China has not been successful in dealing with this issue by utilizing its diplomatic resources effectively. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, used to being called too bureaucratic or too weak, was attacked by angry Chinese netizens. When diplomats hesitated or failed in talks or negotiations, hawkish generals were quite often successful in winning public support.

China thus needs to be adept at managing its “assertiveness.” Its goal should be focused on helping to create joint administration over the islands though a peaceful approach that invites the Japanese to return to diplomacy.

Structural Distrust and the Risk of Conflict

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From the Chinese perspective, if the U.S. has adopted a truly “neutral” position and keeps a face of “smilence,” the risk of war is likely to be limited. But it seems that the relationship will be haunted by what we might call structural distrust between China and the U.S.-led community of nations. An assertion made by Japanese scholar Akira Kato regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute may best describe the origins of this form of distrust: “The fundamental cause of the Senkaku dispute lies in the fact that China is not a democracy.” For the West, China has yet to become a truly trustworthy member of the international community.

According to power transition theory, the probability of war rises when there is power parity between the dominant and the challenger. China is already the world’s second-largest economy and is apparently on track to overtake the U.S. in one or two decades. With Chinese military power growing in step with its economic clout, the U.S. is increasingly concerned about the rise of China: will it be peaceful or will it be confrontational? John Mearsheimer asks simply: “Why should we expect the Chinese to act any differently than the U.S. did?” Exacerbating the concern is the thought that power transitions in Western history have so frequently been violent. Hence, U.S.-China structural distrust stems not only from the ongoing political engagements and frictions, but also from a Western-centered empiricism.

Therefore, a rapidly rising China naturally draws concerns from a U.S. experiencing relative decline. The associated distrust prompts Washington to choose to support its strategic partner and democratic ally Japan in containing China in East Asia, even as Japan moves increasingly to the right.

It is also important to understand that for China, territorial disputes can turn domestic disorder, instability and even anti-government sentiment into staunch pro-government patriotism or nationalism. This is particularly true when Japan is involved. Moreover, both Washington and Beijing should realize that while Beijing has much more diplomatic clout in its South China Sea disputes, its options in the dispute with Japan are fewer. That raises the risk of a clash, and nobody can guarantee that a conflict will not escalate, with dire results for all involved.

So the key to resolving the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute does not lie in the Cairo Communiqué and whether it can be regarded as imposing a legitimate obligation on the current Japanese government. Rather, it requires recognition that sovereignty issues aside, these tiny islands are pawns in a much larger game between two great powers. If China and the U.S. can find a way to build a modicum of trust, and successfully forge a new kind of great power relations, then the potential for these rocks in the East China Sea to cause calamity recedes.

Jin Kai received his Ph.D. in International Relations from the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University, South Korea and is presently a Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies (CIS) there. He previously served at the General Staff Headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army of China as a professional officer and was an international communications and public relations officer for the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding.