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A Deep Chill or Heated Clash for Japan and China?

by Sheila A. Smith
September 24, 2012

Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka (left) and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai meet in Beijing for the first Sino-Japanese summit on September 25, 1972 (Courtesy Jiji Press). Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka (left) and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (right) meet in Beijing for the first Sino-Japanese summit on September 25, 1972 (Courtesy Jiji Press).


Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda departed Tokyo today for the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, and Japan’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Chikao Kawai, departed for Beijing. At best, a chill lies ahead for the Japan-China relationship. At worst, a confrontation in the waters around the disputed islands in the East China Sea could propel the two Asian giants into a very dangerous scenario.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute will be high on the UN agenda. Washington and other regional powers should assist in finding a credible mechanism for peaceful dispute resolution before this crisis worsens.

Beijing has signaled its intent to confront Japan over its sovereignty claim to the Senkaku Islands. Over the weekend, China cancelled the ceremony long planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the Japan-China normalization, indicating Beijing’s displeasure with Tokyo’s decision to purchase the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

This diplomatic chill has also extended to private exchanges. China has postponed a series of exchanges, including the visit of the governor of Nagasaki—a longtime friend of China, a youth exchange between students from the disaster areas of Tohoku and  Szechuan, as well as high-level meetings between Japanese and Chinese business leaders.

Again this morning four Chinese state-owned ships patrolled the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, making this the seventh day of Chinese state patrols of Senkaku waters. Two vessels from the Marine Surveillance Agency and two from the Fisheries Agency were reported by the Japan Coast Guard. Last Friday, the Fisheries Agency initiated boarding inspections of fishing vessels, assumed to be Chinese, for the first time.

Japan continues to protest these incursions into Japanese territorial waters, but the Chinese government asserts that their actions are legal and that they intend to continue. To complicate matters further, the Chinese patrols will likely be joined shortly by a group of seventy fishing boats from Taiwan. Departing from Taiwanese ports today, these activists are aiming for greater access to fishing.

Northeast Asia is now facing the same complex maritime dispute as the South China Sea. Chinese assertion of its maritime claims against its neighbors in Southeast Asia is also carried out by Marine Surveillance Agency patrols, which more often than not are larger than regional coast guards. But equally devastating is the economic cost that an extended territorial dispute can bring for those who depend on Chinese tourists and consumers. There is no clear evidence yet on whether this current dispute will carry over to diminish commerce between Tokyo and Beijing.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei announced Beijing’s decision to cancel the anniversary celebration, placing the blame firmly on Tokyo. Yet Beijing has chosen a course of action that curtails diplomacy. The last time diplomatic tensions escalated to this degree was over the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, but even then in the midst of what came to be called the “deep freeze” in diplomatic relations, Beijing did not cancel the 30th anniversary ceremony.

Beijing is clearly readying for another protracted standoff with Tokyo, but unlike a decade ago, there are greater calls in Japan today to ready Japan’s defenses and prepare for the worst. As the Liberal Democratic Party presidential campaign continues, the speeches of virtually all candidates include reference to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the need to strengthen Japan’s ability to defend its sovereignty.

Emotions on both sides will continue to rise. Clearly, a bilateral accommodation is not likely to be forthcoming. U.S. officials have tried to cool tempers, but as of yet, there seems little sign of calm.

Japan and China both have a stake in the international institutions designed to mediate and support the peaceful resolution of disputes. This week’s UN meeting will for the first time in memory become the stage for serious confrontation between Asia’s two largest powers, offering the opportunity for multilateral encouragement and support for resolution rather than confrontation. Regional powers must join in supporting diplomacy as they too have a tremendous stake in avoiding a worsening of relations between Tokyo and Beijing.

As tensions continue the probability of a miscalculation or accident in the waters of the East China Sea will increase. Preventative diplomacy—by Washington, by other regional powers, and by the UN—is needed now.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Matt

    A key thing is that it is para military naval forces that are involved, not the navies. This allows a pull back if a confrontation goes sideways.

    The security situation in relation to Japanese interests in the PRC was going to return to normal. As with the rare earth dispute, if the Japanese close their factories in the PRC for an extended period of time, it could lead to social unrest inside the PRC. If the factories were closed due to the rare earth dispute either because a lack of rare earths or as a response too, it was likely that the government could blame the Japanese. If the factories close this time it would be due to their fellow Chinese citizens due to security reasons. Which could cause divisions in the social structure.

    Also allowing a controlled society to protest outside social norms, the protests could morph from nationalistic to domestics and economic issues. A controlled society allow to operate outside those enforced social norms is hard to pull back in, if it gets out of hand. The Arab Spring is still very much in play around the world. You also have the slowing economy and the leadership transition.

    Japan claim sovereignty is only the first step, holding on to the islands longer term is another matter. Japan has been restructuring its defense strategy in relation to the first chain islands. The problem for the Japanese is that the PLA can cause a nuclear disaster without using nuclear weapons, by targeting the nuclear network with conventional missiles, if they can overwhelm the BMD, making Japan inhabitable and pushing US forces from the mainland to Guam. Which means Guam as the further most outpost will become cluttered with naval assets.

    Which was explained to Stephen Smith in relation to an off the shelf submarine and using Guam to extend its range from littoral defense to regional. Which means if the project that meets the strategic requirements domestically built for the requirements of their nation cannot come online during a time of increased threat and procuring an off the shelf model that does not fit the requirements, you might as well not have a submarine fleet. As the fleet would be irrelevant an mainly cosmetic.

    So it is the late 2030’s or 2040 before Japan will be safe from such attacks.

    I really do not have a view in relation to the dispute, neutral position, the PRC are financing the railway alternative to the Suez Canal for that I am very grateful to them. It is fine to have ideas like the alternative to the Suez or buying Greek Islands, but you have to remember someone else is paying for it.

  • Posted by barbara

    Is there an example from history where two countries that show evidence of “ownership” of a region came to an amicable arrangement through an intermediary or by direct negotiations with each other?

    Here is an example of how two neighboring communities in New York City (Chinatown and Little Italy) whose redevelopment agencies at one time had competing interests came to a harmonious and mutually beneficial arrangement.

    The thing is is that the parties have to possess a sincere desire to come to an amicable resolution and not secretly hope they can be given a reason to escalate and bully each other about.

    In another thread I had suggested creating on the island a (small) marine research lab run jointly by China and Japan (also Taiwan) and allowing some eco-tourism. Now I’m wondering if it would be wiser to keep the islands uninhabited and pristine and under the joint and benign ownership of all parties. Open maybe once a year to a multi-national team of biologists and botanists who could visit. There aren’t many places on this earth that remain untainted by the presence of humans.

    One thing for sure, as a global community we definitely don’t need yet more drilling for oil. We should strive hard to be internationalists — stewards of our precious earth.

  • Posted by barbara

    Oops, I forgot to post the hyperlink above!

  • Posted by Nancy Snow, Ph.D.

    Of course China and Japan should have joint ownership of the islands. My friend, Eleanor Warnock of the Wall Street Journal, recently visited the disputed islands with a group of journalists and said that they appeared to be a natural preserve for local fish and fauna, not the object of a regional showdown between the world’s second and third leading economies.

    Like you, I am a global citizen and I’m growing increasingly frustrated with the sandbox politics of two nation-states whose citizens I absolutely adore. (I’m lived and taught in both Beijing and Tokyo.) Let’s hope that cooler heads and warmer hearts will prevail.

  • Posted by Thangleader

    I still keep the point of view that the Chinese nationalism can break the Great China only whilst the Nationalism of Japan can break up the world. The problem is China failing to escape a trap from US and its allies and recently, its encirclement has been installed successfully. Few leaders from China fully understood this statuquo as the pivot is only final step of a great game. How they will settle hiccup “Senkaku/Diaoyo”? This is showed a quicksand for China due to the settlement leads to zero point vector. Neither China nor Japan want confront in this claim due to some domestics affairs, indeed. Both of them are facing their war, respectively unless “word war” or other ones. We will know it soon.

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