Japan-China Relations: What Now?

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Tension is quickly rising in Japan-China relations following the Japanese government’s decision to nationalize the Senkaku Islands (known in China as Diaoyutai) on September 11, 2012. China sent a total of six maritime surveillance ships to the waters near Senkaku that same day. More are reportedly on the way as of this writing, escorting thousands of Chinese fishing boats. In addition, although the Chinese government has taken some steps to rein them in, anti-Japan protests have been spreading across China. Many of the demonstrators have turned violent, vandalizing Japanese factories, shopping centers, restaurants, and other facilities. With the anniversary of the 1931 Lutiaohu Incident (also known as the Mukden or Manchurian Incident, an event that led to the Japan-China war in 1937) on September 18th, these demonstrations have not shown any sign of abating.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, during his meetings with Japanese and Chinese counterparts, stressed the need to defuse the tension, and urged that the two countries resolve the issue without taking measures that further aggravate the already tense relations between the two countries. Although they will obviously maintain their conflicting positions on sovereignty, officials in Tokyo and Beijing will need to demonstrate greater leadership if they hope not simply to quell the violence but also to return relations to a more constructive course. 

Japan-China disagreements over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands are not new; the issue has festered since 1971. Relatively quiet for the past several years, the dispute received renewed attention first in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel. But it was not until May 2012 that the issue began to dominate Japan-China relations: Tokyo Metropolitan Governor Shintaro Ishihara, during his visit to Washington, DC, said that his government would purchase three privately owned islands in the Senkakus. Prime Minister Noda decided in early September that the national government would purchase them instead, in order to preempt the virulently anti-China Ishihara.            

Historically, Japan and China managed the dispute over the Senkaku Islands by essentially “shelving” the issue. Fully aware that they would not reach an agreement on the Senkaku Islands’ sovereignty issue, Tokyo and Beijing instead attempted (so far unsuccessfully) to focus on joint development of resources in the East China Sea. In the meantime, Chinese fishermen often entered the waters around the Senkakus but usually voluntarily departed after the Japanese Coast Guard’s warning. Japan, although it has maintained administrative control over the Senkakus for years and recently reaffirmed sovereignty claims, had refrained from actions that might exacerbate the situation. This approach was premised on the restraints of both governments, including their willingness to rein in on the potentially destabilizing activities of non-government entities. 

It is clear that such a historical “shelving” approach is no longer a viable option. The two parties define the history and the stakes very differently. Beijing claims that the Senkaku Islands were a part of the Ming Dynasty, and the Senkaku Islands, along with Taiwan, were among the areas whose sovereignty was taken away from the Qing dynasty with the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War; therefore, Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands was relinquished with the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951. Japan, for its part, argued that China only began to claim sovereignty over the Senkakus after a UN survey revealed the existence of rich oil reserves, and claims that the Senkaku Islands were integrated into Japanese territory in 1895 (Japan argues that the Senkakus were integrated into Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese War, as the result of a ten-year survey that confirmed that the islands were unoccupied by any other entity) and have remained so ever since (except for the period between 1951-1971 when the islands were placed under American control). Neither side will walk away from these claims.

An openly hostile Japan-China relationship will be destabilizing in East Asia, which benefits nobody including Tokyo and Beijing. To minimize the damage-which is already substantial-leaders in both countries will need to do their utmost to tamp down emotions so as to avoid further aggravation of the relationship. However, this is easier said than done in both countries. In Tokyo, the Noda government is so embattled over domestic issues that it is left with little political capital to spend on a complex national security challenge such as this one. His predecessor, having been harshly criticized for caving into Chinese pressure on its response to the September 2010 fishing trawler incident, Prime Minster Noda wants to avoid being labeled as another prime minister who kowtows to China. The best he can do now is to act calmly and avoid actions that could further worsen the situation. In Beijing, the Chinese leadership finds itself in a similar bind. With the leadership transition approaching, it cannot afford being perceived “soft” on the issue of national sovereignty. Chinese leaders may also be concerned that unless the current outpouring expression of anti-Japanese sentiment among its populace is managed carefully, it can easily be re-targeted against Chinese government, although this should serve as the incentive for the leaders in Beijing to tamp down these activities. Constrained by either the lack of will or capacity to manage the current crisis, Tokyo and Beijing now risk causing irreparable damage to Japan-China relations.

Photo Credit: The Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet,

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