Growing Tensions in the East China Sea

By
Senkaku Islands by Al Jazeera English
Growing Tensions in the East China Sea - Richard Purcell

Abstract

This article explores the rising tensions between China and Japan centered on their competing claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The uninhabited islands have been under Japanese control since 1972, and the two nations had agreed to set the controversy aside for several decades in the interest of diplomatic harmony. However, China has begun to press its claim to the islands more forcefully in recent years as Chinese national power has grown. The dispute has emerged as the focal point in the broader Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry. China’s meteoric rise has fueled rising nationalism within China and led to more assertive Chinese behavior throughout East Asia. Tensions over the islands are likely to continue to grow, and the risk of an armed confrontation in the East China Sea is real. A conflict would be highly damaging to both nations’ economies, and both sides have an interest in avoiding such an outcome, but it remains unclear whether a peaceful resolution of the dispute can be achieved.

Japan and China are locked in an ongoing standoff over the status of a series of uninhabited islands and rocks located 170 kilometers northeast of Taiwan.  These islands, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, are part of the larger chain of Ryukyu Islands that extend southwest from the Japanese mainland.  The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan, have a total area of only seven square kilometers, making them about twice the size of New York’s Central Park.  On their face, they do not seem like an obvious source of international friction.  Over the last five years, however, the dispute over who controls these islands has become a focal point of the increasingly tense rivalry between China and Japan.  Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this controversy will be settled anytime soon.

The differing Chinese and Japanese perspectives on the islands stem from their different historical interpretations.  Japan claims that it legally annexed the islands in 1895 after determining that they were uninhabited and unclaimed by any other country.  China argues that it has records demonstrating that the islands came under its control as early as the fourteenth century, and that Japan’s seizure of them in 1895 was illegal.  The U.S. assumed control of the Ryukyu Islands, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, after its defeat of Japan in World War II.  In 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato met in Washington and agreed that control of the islands would be returned to Japan in three years.  This announcement was met with considerable opposition from the Taiwanese government, then led by President Chiang Kai-shek, and it prompted a number of public protests by Chinese-Americans in the United States.  Despite concerns that the handover could harm U.S.-Taiwan relations as well as hinder American efforts to achieve a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, the Nixon administration determined that the U.S. had committed itself irrevocably to returning the islands to Japan.  Backtracking on that commitment would have seriously damaged the U.S. relationship with Japan, one of the cornerstones of American security strategy in the Asia Pacific.  However, in an effort to finesse the controversy, the U.S. declared that it was merely returning administrative control of the islands to Japan, and that it took no position on which nation could rightfully claim sovereignty over them.[1] 

In 1972, the year the United States relinquished control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, China and Japan reestablished diplomatic ties with one another, an event that corresponded to the restoration of U.S.-China relations that same year.  At the time, Japan had staged a remarkable recovery from the devastation of World War II and was an ascending economic power.  China, on the other hand, was an economically backward country that was still reeling from the disastrous effects of the Great Leap Forward and beset by the turmoil of the ongoing Cultural Revolution.  Both nations saw the Soviet Union as the primary threat to their security, and both saw mutual benefit in strengthening Sino-Japanese economic engagement.  At the time of the rapprochement, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly told Japanese delegates that “there is no need to mention the Diaoyu Islands.  It does not count as a problem of any sort compared to recovering normal diplomatic relations.”[2] 

The strategic circumstances facing both nations changed dramatically over the next four decades.  Japan continued its impressive economic rise for two more decades, eventually becoming the world’s second largest economy.  But its economy unexpectedly began to falter in the early 1990s and has been largely stagnant ever since.  China, on the other hand, has experienced massive, sustained economic growth since the late 1970s.  From 1979, when it first began to implement economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping, until 2013, China’s gross domestic product grew at an average annual rate of just under 10 percent.[3]  Its economy surpassed Japan’s in size in 2010 and has continued to expand, although there are indications that its growth has begun to slow.  Unlike Japan, which for decades has maintained a modest but capable military, China’s economic growth has been accompanied by an enormous military buildup.  As recently as 2003, Japan outpaced China in military spending, $61 billion to $57 billion.  By 2013, China’s defense budget was triple that of what it had been ten years earlier, while Japan’s military expenditures were essentially unchanged.[4]  As a result of this buildup, China is increasingly able to project military power into the East and South China Seas.

China’s geopolitical rise has been accompanied by a strong surge in Chinese nationalism.  This is not an accident.  The economic liberalization that began in the late 1970s undermined the Marxist ideology that had governed China since the 1949 revolution.  In its place, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increasingly turned to Chinese nationalism in order to justify its continued rule.  As Professor Yinan He of Seton Hall University explained in a 2007 journal article, “patriotism replaced communism to become the ideological foundation of the CCP’s regime legitimacy. The state propaganda of patriotism, or the official nationalism, tried to inspire the people’s love for the nation by praising China’s national greatness as well as accentuating the differences between China and other nations.”[5]  Much of the government’s nationalist propaganda has been directed at Japan, China’s historic rival.  In particular, the regime in Beijing has gone to great lengths to raise public awareness of Japan’s brutal occupation of parts of China in the 1930s and 1940s, a topic that was officially taboo until the early 1980s.

As Chinese power has grown in recent decades, there has been an increasingly widespread belief among both elites and the general public that China is now reassuming its rightful place as regional hegemon after being victimized and subjugated by foreign powers for more than a century.  China’s growing strategic confidence contrasts sharply with Chinese perceptions of a Japan that is in long term decline.  As an April 2013 report by the International Crisis Group 2013 noted, “Many Chinese strategists perceive Japan to be a former empire continuing on a downward slide while China’s star is rising.”[6]  Japan, for its part, has become alarmed by the growth of China’s military power and its increasing assertiveness on the international stage.  Since World War II, nationalist sentiment in Japan has been confined to a small but vocal segment of the population.  Japanese nationalism appears to be growing, however.[7]  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is himself a committed Japanese nationalist who recently engineered an official reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow Tokyo greater, albeit still limited, flexibility in its use of Japanese military forces.  Japan also recently increased military spending for the first time in more than a decade, and it has begun enhancing its security relations with other countries in the Indo-Pacific who, like Japan, have come to view China’s rise with a wary eye.

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands must be understood in the context of this broader shift in the Sino-Japanese balance of power and the strategic rivalry that exists between them. The ongoing tensions over control of the islands are not the cause of this rivalry; they are the product of it.  While the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute has been an issue for some time, it did not emerge as a focal point of Sino-Japanese relations until September 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the surrounding waters.  Japan detained the boat’s captain for an extended period and sought to prosecute him under Japanese law.  China reacted harshly, cutting off high level contacts between Beijing and Tokyo and imposing an embargo on the sale of rare earth minerals to Japan.  The Japanese reluctantly backed down and released the captain into Chinese custody.  Tensions continued to simmer until September 2012, when they exploded again after the Japanese government purchased three of the five disputed islands from their private owner.  The move was intended to prevent Tokyo’s ultra-nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, from acquiring them using private donations and building outposts on them, but it provoked great outrage in China.  More recently, in November of 2013, China unilaterally declared its establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that includes the skies over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, air space that Japan claims as its own. 

Passions run deep in both nations.  However, it is China that is seeking to overturn the status quo and wrest control of the islands from Japan.  Beijing has generally been firm and clear on this topic.  Statements from Chinese officials appear to leave little wiggle room for negotiation.  On March 8, 2014, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated that “there is no room for compromise” on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue.[8]  One month later, China’s defense minister, General Chang Wanquan, echoed this view, saying that his country would “make no compromise, no concession, no treaty.”[9]  Chinese leaders know that if they were to compromise on the islands, they would likely face an uproar at home – one that could conceivably threaten their hold on power.  They also are surely aware that doing so would encourage other nations who have territorial disputes with China, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, to stand their ground in the face of Chinese assertiveness.

The Japanese position seems similarly unyielding, with Tokyo refusing to even officially acknowledge that there is a dispute about the islands.  The 2010 incident involving the Chinese fishing captain remains a sore spot for many in Japan.  Tokyo capitulated by releasing the captain in the face of tremendous Chinese economic and diplomatic pressure, but Japan’s acquiescence seems to have only whetted China’s appetite for confrontation.  China now regularly sends patrol boats to harass Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, and it also frequently deploys aircraft to patrol the skies over the area.  These actions have caused anti-China sentiment in Japan to harden, making it politically difficult for Abe to compromise on this issue in the unlikely event he were so inclined.  There is also a pervasive feeling in Japan that if China were to take control of the islands, it would embolden Beijing to aggressively challenge Japan in other arenas.  In fact, prominent Chinese scholars and official Chinese media outlets have, in recent years, begun to question Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands.[10]

The growing Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands represent a thorny problem for U.S. policymakers.  In its relations with Japan, Washington seeks to reassure Tokyo that it remains firmly committed to the alliance.  At the same time, the U.S. does not want to be seen as giving Japan a blank check.  Because Prime Minister Abe is an ardent Japanese nationalist, there is concern in Washington that he may be tempted to take inflammatory actions, such as establishing an outpost on one of the islands, if he believes he enjoys unqualified U.S. support.  With regard to China, Washington faces a similarly delicate balancing act.  On one hand, it continues to assert its firm neutrality on the question of the islands’ sovereignty.  On the other hand, the U.S. seeks to dispel any doubts in Beijing about the strength of the U.S. security commitment to Japan in order to deter Chinese aggression. 

If the dispute continues to intensify, as seems likely, the U.S. will find itself in an increasingly difficult spot.  While Washington takes no position on who the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands belong to, it does recognize Japanese administration of them.  Numerous U.S. officials have affirmed that the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty obligates the United States to come to Japan’s aid if a foreign power attempts to seize the islands.  As Sino-Japanese tensions have grown, the U.S. and Japan have taken steps to strengthen ties between their respective militaries.  That said, there is little appetite in Washington for a conflict with China, particularly one over a set of small, uninhabited islands that are of little strategic interest to the U.S.  A shooting war with China – even a short one – would likely be highly detrimental to the U.S. economy.  It’s also unclear whether the American public would support U.S. military intervention on Japan’s behalf.  It is difficult to accurately forecast how the United States would react in the event of a crisis in the East China Seas, as so much would depend on the specific circumstances.   

A worst case scenario would involve China using sudden military force to seize control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and attack Japan’s military assets in the region before Japan could react.  Such a scenario is unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out.  Speaking at a naval conference in February 2014, Captain James Fanell, deputy chief of staff intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told audience members that China is developing the capability “to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea following with what can only be an expected seizure of the Senkakus.”[11]  Under such circumstances, the U.S. would likely feel it had no choice but to intervene militarily in support of JapanA U.S. decision to sit on the sidelines in such a scenario would severely – perhaps fatally – damage the U.S.-Japan alliance.  Japanese leaders would then be faced with a difficult choice of either becoming more accommodating of Chinese power or engaging in a dangerous arms race with China that could include nuclear weapons.  Neither outcome would be in U.S. interests.   Moreover, a U.S. failure to come to Japan’s aid in a crisis would seriously undermine U.S. credibility with its other allies and security partners in the region.  This would facilitate the long term expansion of China’s strategic influence in the Asia Pacific at U.S. expense.

A more likely forecast is that China will continue its current approach of steadily ratcheting up the pressure on Japan in the dispute over the islands.  Beijing is keen to avoid doing anything that could be seen as aggressive, so it has generally avoided taking any precipitous actions.  Instead, it has undertaken a series of moderate steps over time intended to strengthen its ability to challenge Japanese control of the islands.  China’s security presence in the East China Sea is growing, and Beijing continues to foster nationalist sentiment at home as a way to put additional pressure on Japan.  China also seeks to advance its territorial claims with what the International Crisis Group has termed “reactive assertiveness,” whereby it “exploits perceived provocations in disputed areas by other countries to take strong countermeasures to change the status quo in its favour.”[12]  The most glaring example of this tactic (which China has also employed to bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea) was China’s response to Tokyo’s 2012 purchase of three of the disputed islands.  On the day the purchase was made public, Beijing announced territorial baselines delineating China’s specific claims on the islands, a step it had not taken before, and it immediately dispatched six maritime security ships to the surrounding waters.  The rapidity with which China took these actions strongly indicates that they were planned well in advance.  China’s adoption of this tactic has unsettling implications.  The growing Sino-Japanese tensions over the disputed islands and the close commingling of Chinese and Japanese security forces in the East China Sea create a climate in which a hostile incident of some kind could be difficult to avoid.  If that were to occur, China’s past behavior strongly suggests that its response would be escalatory in nature.  If an armed skirmish (or worse) between Chinese and Japanese forces were to result, Washington would face difficult questions as to how it should respond. 

A confrontation over the islands is not inevitable.  The Japanese government, backed by the U.S., can take steps to help dissuade China from more aggressively pressing its claims.  One involves working to bolster Tokyo’s relationships with other nations in the Indo-Pacific, particularly those that also have territorial disputes with China.  In this vein, Japan has wisely sought to strengthen its security ties with India, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  Such efforts should continue, encouraged by the United States.  In addition, the Japanese must develop plans and capabilities that will enhance their ability to respond to non-military coercion by China.  This will require Tokyo to integrate the Japanese Coast Guard and relevant law enforcement agencies into its security planning with regard to the islands.  Lastly, Japanese leaders should avoid statements and actions that could further inflame nationalist passions in China.  The rise in Chinese nationalism is fundamentally an outgrowth of China’s internal political dynamics rather than a reaction to provocative Japanese behavior, but Tokyo would be wise to refrain from fanning the flames.  

There are few indications that the tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands will be resolved anytime in the foreseeable future.  They are more likely to intensify over time.  China’s growing power corresponds with its increasing determination to challenge Japanese control of the islands.  At a deeper level, the rivalry between China and Japan looks to be an enduring feature of the strategic landscape in the Asia Pacific.  Japanese and Chinese leaders understand that a conflict would be economically damaging for both countries, but it’s not clear that this understanding will be enough to temper rising nationalist passions, particularly on the Chinese side. While a conflict does not appear imminent, it is very likely that Sino-Japanese tensions over the islands will continue to grow.

Notes & References

  1. Smith, Paul J. “The Senkaku-Diaoyu Island Controversy: A Crisis Postponed.” U.S. Naval War College Review, Spring 2013: pp. 29-37.
  2. He, Yinan. “History, Chinese Nationalism and the Emerging Sino–Japanese Conflict.” Journal of Contemporary China, February 2007: p.4. See https://www.princeton.edu/cwp/publications/HeJCCpublication.pdf.
  3. “China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States.” Congressional Research Service, February 3, 2014: p. 1.
  4. SIPRI Military Expenditure Database. See http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/milex_database/milex_database.  The figures given are in 2011 dollars.
  5. He, p.6.
  6. "Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks.” International Crisis Group, April 8, 2013: p. i.  See http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/north-east-asia/china/245-dangerous-waters-china-japan-relations-on-the-rocks.aspx.
  7. Hayashi, Yuka. “Tensions in Asia Stoke Rising Nationalism in Japan.” Wall Street Journal 26 February 2014.  See http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304610404579403492918900378.
  8. Wong, Edward. “China’s Hard Line: ‘No Room for Compromise’.” New York Times 8 March 2014. See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/world/asia/china.html.  
  9. Cooper, Helen. “Hagel Spars With Chinese Over Islands and Security.” New York Times 8 April 2014.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/09/world/asia/united-states-and-china-clash-over-contested-islands.html.
  10. Perlez, Jane. “Calls Grow in China to Press Claim for Okinawa.” New York Times13 June 2013.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/14/world/asia/sentiment-builds-in-china-to-press-claim-for-okinawa.html.
  11. Dyer, Geoff. “China training for ‘short, sharp war’, says senior US naval officer.” Financial Times 20 February 2014. See http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/687e31a2-99e4-11e3-91cd-00144feab7de.html#axzz3AaGz8RoK. The Pentagon subsequently distanced itself from Captain Fanell’s remarks.
  12. “Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks,” p. i.
Richard Purcell is a freelance writer covering international security affairs. He holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Strategic Studies. Prior to graduate school, he worked as a legislative staffer for Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) for seven years on foreign policy and national security issues. He blogs at SecurityDilemmas.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @SecurityDilems.