In late January, Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of Japan’s New Komeito Party, a junior party in Japan’s coalition government, made a successful trip to Beijing. During the visit, he handed a letter penned by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平).
This exchange offered a glimmer of hope in the increasingly tense relations between Japan and China.
However, just as the two sides were circling each other like wary combatants, tensions over sovereignty claims concerning the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku in Japan — took another turn for the worse, rising to the point that the slightest misstep by either party could trigger a crisis.
Last month, Japan accused the Chinese navy of using its weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer. Then, Chinese fishing boats and fighter jets entered the waters and air space around the islands, and the People’s Liberation Army deployed tanks and guided missiles along China’s southeastern coast.
At this sensitive juncture, Japan is keen to shore up links with the US, carrying out large-scale island invasion military drills with the US Army in California and with Abe visiting the US recently.
There was considerable interest in what assurances US President Barack Obama gave Abe during his visit.
Every step in this new round of activity between China and Japan involves strategic considerations.
Following Abe’s visit to the US, both sides have been upping the ante and making sure their voices are heard, but also with the intention of increasing their own bargaining power for the next round of negotiations over the disputed islands.
Japan’s revelations of China’s use of weapons-targeting radar were meant to show that the threat represented by China had gone up a notch, in the hope that the US would do something to help Tokyo deal with the situation in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, China’s very vocal objections were meant to limit any US-Japanese military cooperation on protecting the Diaoyutais.
It is now too late for Washington to unilaterally control the situation, given the way the Diaoyutai issue has developed.
Even if Obama succeeded in convincing Abe not to make further provocative moves, this would do little to dissipate current tensions.
Over the past five months or so, China has managed to turn around from a position of weakness and installed “permanent” patrols of the waters near the Diaoyutais.
In other words, persuading the Chinese to withdraw their ships and fighters to beyond 12 nautical miles (22km) of the Diaoyutais is not only crucial to alleviating the crisis, but is also central to Sino-Japanese talks on the issue.
The problem is what conditions can Japan offer to convince China to step back?
Beijing is still insisting that Japan “remedies its errors,” saying that Tokyo’s “nationalization” of three of the islands in the group had changed the “status quo” and violated an agreement between previous generations of Japanese and Chinese leaders to set aside the issue and let future generations deal with it.
However, it is highly unlikely that the Abe administration will accede to this. Not only is the transaction already a fait accompli, but any attempt to return to the previous “status quo” would be technically unfeasible and result in a loss of face.
In addition, the Japanese government believes that buying the islands from the private owner was the best option at the time to maintain the “status quo.”