China-Japan relations are at a crisis point. The trigger this time is the ownership of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) in China, in the East China Sea — with both China and Japan claiming sovereignty. Taiwan also has a claim on the islands, thus pitting it against Japan.
Japan first acquired the islands after the Sino-Japanese war in 1896. During World War II, they were lost to the US, but since 1971, when the US returned the islands to Japan, they have been under Japanese control. Beijing claims that these islands were historically part of China and the US had no business returning them to Japan.
The recent escalation of tensions in China-Japan relations started with the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islands from their private Japanese owner in a bid to nationalize them. That led China to send patrol boats to the area to affirm the seriousness of its own claim. There are reports that Chinese fishermen will soon be going to the contested waters to fish, possibly under the protection of Chinese naval vessels.
A Taiwanese fishing fleet that visited the area was subjected to bursts of Japanese coast guard water cannons, with the Taiwanese coast guard responding in kind.
These developments have occasioned an unprecedented show of nationalist anger in China targeting Japanese establishments, big and small, leading them to shut down their operations.
Apparently, there was an element of state encouragement behind all this. However, the protests are being carefully controlled lest such public anger turn on state institutions for unrelated reasons.
There are several aspects to China-Japan hostilities. First, on China’s side, there is the century of humiliation that started with the Sino-Japanese war of 1896 and included the 1930s occupation of Manchuria, followed by the brutality and atrocities of World War II. The Japanese invasion of China was a horrendous affair and those memories are still fresh for the Chinese.
Over and above China’s historical claim to the islands, they are also seen now as valuable real estate in terms of potential offshore oil and gas reserves. They are also rich in fisheries. Tokyo feels that this is the real reason for China’s new interest in the islands.
A resurgent and powerful China is seeking to assert its claim and thereby announce a new Chinese era in regional politics and strategy, as it is doing in regard to other maritime disputes with some of its neighbors.
The current crisis over the Diaoyutais has a history involving China’s deeply felt humiliation when it was weak, with Japan treading all over it. Now that it is strong and powerful, it might be going overboard to right the wrongs of the past.
As for Japan, it is not willing to give any ground on its sovereignty claim over the islands, which are under its control.
On both sides, it is a question of national pride, even more so in China, where there is seething anger over Japan’s wartime record.
It is also a difficult political time in China, with the leadership transition in the country to be formalized at the 18th Communist Party Congress to be held soon. Because of the scandal over former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (薄熙來) and his wife’s murky murder verdict, there is a certain political shadow hanging over the country that needs clear resolution. Bo’s expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), followed by his likely trial on criminal charges, is supposed to clear the political climate. That remains to be seen.
Against this political backdrop, the national outrage against Japan, involving attacks on Japanese businesses and establishments in China, is a useful distraction and mobilization technique. The CCP is always mindful of keeping popular demonstrations under close watch because nationalism is a beast that might take an unwelcome turn, even turning on the party for all sorts of reasons. However, these protests are useful to distract from the country’s slowing economic growth, internal political wrangling from the Bo affair and the leadership transition.
Whatever might be China’s internal political imperatives, the external ramifications of increased regional tensions are quite worrying.
Japan has its own ultra-nationalists, like Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who wanted to buy the islands from their Japanese owner, thus forcing the national government to pre-empt him with its purchase.
Indeed, Japan’s centrist ruling Democratic Party of Japan looks like it will lose the next election to a right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party that has just elected former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, a fervent nationalist, as its president. With Abe as prime minister, tensions between the countries would likely rise further.
While this is essentially an issue between China, Taiwan and Japan, any military conflict between them is likely to involve the US on behalf of its ally, Japan. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has visited both Tokyo and Beijing, emphasizing the need for both countries to sort out the islands issue peacefully, lest it develop into a military conflict that could involve the US.
CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily said that Beijing might take punitive economic measures against Japan if it did not back off.
Highlighting Japan’s economic paralysis over the past two decades, further compounded by the global financial crisis, the newspaper said: “Japan’s economy lacks immunity to Chinese economic measures,” while admitting that would be a “double-edged sword” for China because the two countries’ economies are interdependent in many ways.
“Amidst a struggle that touches on territorial sovereignty, if Japan continues its provocations China will inevitably take on the fight,” it added.
And it does not take long for economic warfare to develop into military conflict.
Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.