China – Japan Islands Dispute

Swords in the East China Sea

Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands

February 13th 2015 | London

China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting on the sidelines of the APEC meetings in Beijing

Photograph by Kim Kyung-Hoon (Reuters)

Nations often go all out to protect their disputed lands. In domestic politics, defending one’s land can stir nationalism and bolster the government’s popularity. In foreign policy, aggressively defending one’s land can deter potential enemies.

As neither party wants to give in, many nations remain stuck in territorial disputes. At the same time, there is an immediate dilemma: while no one is willing to give in, no one can afford to create utter chaos. The world is so intertwined that if one major country sneezes, the whole world catches a cold. Forty years ago, perhaps only the US had such vast influence. Today, China is no longer an isolated island in the world. It is an international behemoth with massive political and economic influence. If it postures itself in an unduly aggressive manner, China would inevitably hurt its trading ties. The need to balance national sovereignty and economic interests has been difficult for China and unsurprisingly led to the deadlock that is the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.

Development of Diaoyu/Senkaku Dispute

This long-standing territorial dispute involves a group of uninhibited islands known as the ‘Diaoyudao’ in China, the ‘Tiaoyutai’ in Taiwan, and the ‘Senkaku islands’ in Japan. The islands are important for a few reasons. Firstly, they are representative of national sovereignty and pride. A failure to secure these islands would prove to be politically disastrous. Secondly, they are valuable for the potential oil reserves beneath them. Thirdly, they are near rich fishing grounds and strategic shipping lanes.

With these political and economic implications, China and Japan have been uncompromising in the East China Sea. In 2010, responding to a collision between a Chinese trawler and a Japanese patrol boat, the Chinese government immediately cancelled official Sino-Japan meetings of ministerial level and above. As of February 2013, BBC regarded the territorial dispute as “the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarised conflict”. In April 2013, China declared that the islands are its core interest. Japan, on the other hand, asserted that it has traditionally administrated the Senkaku islands, and the islands are not disputed at all. In an almost vindictive tone, the Japanese Cabinet accused China of attempting to change the status quo by force.

More importantly, in November 2013, China announced its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) More importantly, in November 2013, China announced its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Aircrafts flying in the ADIZ are urged to file their flight plans with Chinese authorities and provide means of identification. China may scramble fighter jets to identify aircrafts that refuse to comply with Chinese regulations. This unilateral decision to establish an ADIZ caused an immediate outcry, especially from Japan and its allies. For instance, Robert Zoellic, former US Deputy Secretary of State, urged China to be responsible and described the nation described the nation as an ‘elephant that has grown too big to hide behind a tree any longer’, reflecting grave concern over China’s growing power and ambitions. To a definite extent, this sudden decision to draw the ADIZ over the East China Sea region reflects an impatient and almost brazen China.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s helm, China seems to be able to provoke foreign powers and, if it so chooses, rewrite the rules of engagement in the East China Sea. The ADIZ is arguably a sign that China is ready to shape, rather than accept, the world order within which it operates. But this is not entirely surprising. Xi, unlike his predecessors, has been able to consolidate power much faster and now commands significant control in the People’s Liberation Army. His military credentials and political grip over decision-making mechanisms lend credibility when he issues harsh statements reflecting a strong anti-Japanese stance. Similarly, promises to temporarily set aside territorial disputes in favour of Sino-Japanese economic partnership have not been lasting.

As recent as last month, the Chinese government set up a website dedicated to the Diaoyu islands – The website publicises the historical and legal bases of China’s claim.

Japan: Strong Reaction

Responding to China’s hawkish behaviour, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution asking China to rescind the ADIZ. Japan also vowed to increase military budget to curb China’s presence in the East China Sea. In comical fashion, envoys from both nations have nicknamed each other as the ‘Lord Voldemort of East Asia’.

On a serious note, the general military posture and political language from both sides have been decidedly provocative and inflammatory, with no signs of either side giving way. Even the ‘ice-breaking’ meeting between Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proved largely futile. Xi’s disinterested expression was a blatant and resounding message. The Diaoyu/Senkaku deadlock is more challenging than other territorial disputes. It is no longer a mere question of territorial integrity. It is loaded with historical animosity and has been worsened by the fact that Xi and Abe are hard-headed leaders, making this dispute seemingly insurmountable.

US: Mixed Reaction

The US, on the other hand, had a rather mixed response towards China’s actions. While American representatives repeatedly expressed concern over the increased risk of a “dangerous miscalculation or accident” in the East China Sea, they have been unwilling to issue a joint statement with Japan to condemn China and urge China to rescind the ADIZ. It could be said that China’s aggression in this territorial dispute exposed a potential crack in the traditionally strong US-Japan alliance. 

The US’s mixed reaction indicates that it now makes tedious choices between its political and economic interests. It must prove to Japan that it will continue to lend its support. At the same time, it must also assure China that it does not want to cause any serious conflict that may jeopardise their economic ties. At the moment, greater priority is given to the US’ economic interests. As rightly suggested by Professor Jin Canrong, a China-US relations expert at the Renmin University of China, Sino-US ties are modifying. The scale is now tipping in favour of the Eastern behemoth.

ASEAN Powers: Moderate Response

While not directly involved in this territorial dispute, a few ASEAN members have weighed in on the matter. This is understandable. The escalation of conflict in the East China Sea may eventually affect China’s trajectory in the South China Sea, where Beijing is in similar territorial deadlock with several ASEAN nations. If China succeeds in achieving its aims through aggression in the East China Sea, the fear is that it is encouraged to employ the same tactics over the Spratly islands. 

Even so, ASEAN powers, like the US, have toned down their rhetoric. The Japan-ASEAN joint statement in December 2014, while indicating that ASEAN and Japan would cooperate to ‘(ensure) the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety’, deliberately omitted any express mention of China and its ADIZ.

Unlike the past when vitriol from the world was almost immediate, foreign powers are now relatively hesitant in criticising China. Increasingly tight economic relations with China definitely played a part. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, for instance, started in 2010 and has expanded tremendously over the past three years, deterring ASEAN members from infuriating China. Besides that, countries that have historical feuds with Japan accept China’s bold posturing in the East China Sea partly because of their frustration at the Abe’s distorted view of Japanese history and alleged military ambitions. While the reasons are varied, the end result is clear – China is gradually ascending in the current world order.

Looking Forward: Peace or Chaos?

The limits of China’s aggression remain uncertain. What is certain now is that China has stronger bargaining power and military strength to shape the current world order. Under Xi’s leadership, China has reflected hawkish behaviour that is dangerous but unlikely to convince or intimidate Japan’s equally aggressive Abe. In such heated times, it is important to stay calm and prioritise. Xi wants China to be rejuvenated through the ‘Chinese Dream’. As China seeks to stabilise its ‘new normal’ at 6-7% economic growth, it needs massive economic restructuring and an incredibly stable global environment. This is perhaps why, in the LSE SU China Development Forum 2015, Professor Feng Wei of Fudan University expressed the view that “China needs a quiet and safe environment to dream”. As a logical extension of Feng’s view, the clang of swords in the East China Sea is the last thing China needs in this crucial ‘new normal’.

At the same time, while China strives to modernise its defence technology in order to feel safer and more secure, neighbouring countries cannot be blamed for being paranoid or insecure. ASEAN members will and should pay close attention to the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute and be prepared to intervene or voice their opinions when necessary. Perhaps Former Minister Mentor of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was prophesying when he said that ‘it is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world’. This intention is arguably taking shape and slowly informing Chinese trajectory.

In the meantime, regional powers are justified to shift their perception of China – from friend to foe, from partner to competitor, from harmless panda to domineering dragon.

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