Sino-Japanese relations have again grown tense with the return of Shinzo Abe as Japanese prime minister. Tensions over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known in Japan as the Senkakus — continue to escalate, and the possibility of hostilities breaking out now extends not just to the seas, but to the skies. Japan and China have not been this close to conflict since the end of World War II. Both nations have been playing with fire and this charade is coming perilously close to spiraling out of control. Both must think carefully about their next step.
After Japan effectively “nationalized” three of the islands, China made the presence of marine patrols a relatively permanent fixture around the Diaoyutais. Japan has been powerless to stop this, despite Abe’s stance, both because Japan has a limited number of patrol boats and because the captains have their hands tied: The Japanese have no intention of taking the opening shot on a vessel carrying out official business on behalf of a foreign government.
On Dec. 13, the Chinese dispatched surveillance planes into the airspace above the Diaoyutais in support of its patrol boats. On Jan. 10, after news broke that the Japanese were considering firing tracer bullets at Chinese planes approaching the Diaoyutais, the Chinese dispatched a dozen fighters, flying above what Japan calls its Air Defense Identification Zone, causing Tokyo to scramble its own fighters.
Even before the tension between the two nations’ patrol boats had been resolved, another confrontation had broken out in the skies. What does this mean?
As far as the conflict on the water is concerned, the majority of the Chinese vessels coming within 12 nautical miles (22.22km) of the Diaoyutais belong to the State Oceanic Administration; they are not military. Neither are the Japanese patrol boats part of the Self-Defense Forces. Should any conflict erupt, then, it would not necessarily mean the outbreak of war. Although one cannot discount the possibility that either side would subsequently dispatch military vessels, there would still be a window in which the tensions could be relieved before such support could arrive.
Should Chinese and Japanese jet fighters come into direct conflict, it would be the first time since the end of the second Sino-Japanese War. And, should the Chinese planes enter the airspace above the Diaoyutais and engage the Japanese, the chances of military conflict would escalate significantly.
After Japan’s “nationalization” of some of the islands, I wrote a paper concluding that a “Battle of the Diaoyutais” would be unlikely. I based this on the close relationship between the two nations, including economic ties and movement of people between them. If the leaders of the two countries possess an iota of sense, they will not enter into a third Sino-Japanese War lightly. I still agree with this assessment, and believe the stand-off around the Diaoyutais is primarily aimed at challenging Japan’s claim to control of the islands: It is not about taking the islands by force.
Nevertheless, the chances of things turning abruptly nasty grows daily, and things could easily go from non-military to military in nature. How the leaders are going to avoid a war caused by a stray shot will be a test of their wisdom and judgement.
This mutual escalation is a stark exemplar of the wisdom of our own approach, that is, not to provoke, but not to avoid the issue, either. Neither side wants Taiwan to gravitate toward the other, and this can be used to our advantage. It is an opportunity to seek a compromise on Taiwan-Japan fishing rights negotiations, and to find a way to increase our role and status in the resolution of the Diaoyutais issue.
John Lim is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper