Members of the Hong Kong-based movement to protect the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) Islands recently wrote a new chapter in the history of the Diaoyutai conflict by landing on the disputed islands.
Japan did not help when its coast guard let Japanese activists reach the islands to plant their own flags and hold a ritual to pay their respects to the spirits of the dead, leading to large anti-Japanese protests in more than 20 cities around China.
The escalating nationalist fervor on both sides means that the outlook for solving the Diaoyutais issue is full of uncertainty.
Things will soon calm down, at least for a while. Before we explore a possible solution to the conflict, we must first start with a discussion of how the recent conflict over the Diaoyutais arose.
The dispute is essentially between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Japan. Of course, the incident two years ago in which a Chinese fishing boat hit a Japanese patrol boat in the territorial waters of the disputed islands, and the announcement by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara of his intentions to buy several of the islands to give to the Japanese government in April this year, were both inflammatory.
However, it is perhaps more informative to look at the underlying structural factors to this conflict, and the change in power relations between China and Japan. I refer to this cluster of conflicts between the two powers as the “Sino-Japan Power Relations Transition Syndrome.”
In 2010, Japan, for so long the unchallenged second-largest economy in the world, was overtaken by China in terms of GDP. China replaced Japan as Asia’s big brother. However, neither country — governments or citizens — were prepared for this shift in power relations. The Chinese are still exploring how to take on the mantle of responsibility in East Asia, and the Japanese, long used to hearing the notion of Japan as Number One (from the best-selling title of the book by Harvard University professor Ezra Vogel), are uncomfortable with the prospect of relegation to East Asia’s No. 2.
In this transitional period, Sino-Japanese relations are particularly vulnerable to flare-ups, such as the likes of the 2005 quarrel over the content of history textbooks taught in Japanese schools or the disputes over the Diaoyutais.
The propensity toward flare-ups are a result of the unease felt in both nations due to the power shift.
On one hand, China’s “rise” has created an increasing sense of nationalistic pride in the populace, and a heightened sensitivity to any foreign pressure, which could be perceived as effrontery to Chinese national dignity.
This, coupled with the country’s systemic vulnerabilities, means that nationalistic fervor can occasionally spiral out of control.
On the other hand, Japan is disillusioned after two lost decades and an increasingly uncertain future on the international stage — both empowering right-wing elements.
The dispute over the Diaoyutais is a concrete manifestation of the Sino-Japan Power Relations Transition Syndrome. Both sides have gradually lost patience and have begun to challenge, intentionally or not, the tacit agreement that has historically existed between them.
They have begun casting accusations and escalating tensions, even though there is no apparent solution in sight.
This tacit agreement is an understanding, that extends back to the 1970s, between China and Japan over their handling of the Diaoyutais issue, and which entails exercising mutual constraint and avoiding provocative behavior.