Sino-Japanese islands crisis deepens

A ROW over islands in the East China Sea has left ties between Japan and China severely strained.

Reuters/BBC Online

In the latest development, Japan says a Chinese frigate locked weapon-targeting radar on one of its navy ships in waters near the islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

The incident has added to tensions between the two nations over the disputed islands.

Japan will consider how much normally classified data it can release, media reports said, citing comments by Japan Defence minister Itsunori Onodera on local television.

China has accused Japan of smearing its name with the accusations.
Japan and China have been involved in a series of incidents in recent months in the East China Sea where Chinese and Japanese naval vessels regularly shadow each other’s movements.

Both countries claim small clusters of islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, believed to be rich in oil and gas. Controlled by Japan, possession of the uninhabited outcrops and the sea surrounding them would provide China with easier access to the Pacific.

Hopes had been rising for an easing in tensions, including a possible summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping. But the radar issue has seen China and Japan engage in a fresh round of invective.

Four experts assess how serious the situation is.

Overview: Christopher Hughes
The situation is certainly the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarised conflict.

The two sides have had periodic deteriorations in bilateral ties before and usually found a way to settle, if not resolve, differences. Moreover, in the past there was never really any risk of armed conflict.

The situation is thus serious, with a risk of the militarisation and escalation of tensions. There are mechanisms to defuse tensions somewhat but there is also perhaps a lack of leadership on both sides necessary to really focus on dealing with the problems.

We are seeing the coincidence of two regimes in China and Japan which are facing crises of legitimacy and a temptation to turn to issues of nationalism to compensate.

The problems of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in trying to maintain one party rule in the face of pluralist pressures are well known.

Japan is a democracy so does not face quite the same pressures, but there is a similar sense of the bankruptcy of the legitimacy and competency of the governing elites, and all of this is set against a difficult economic climate.

In this sense, both political leaderships have incentives to play with issues of nationalism, but clearly this is very hazardous both internally and for external relations.

China: Victor Gao
China views the “nationalisation” of the Diaoyu Islands by the Japanese government in September 2012 as a serious provocation and will do whatever is necessary to assert its sovereignty over the islands.

Japan is using more and more naval ships and warplanes over the Diaoyu Islands, and is trying its best to involve the US on its behalf in this dispute.

While without taking a position on the sovereignty issue, the US has re-affirmed its recognition of Japan exercising administrative rights over the Diaoyu Islands, and is claiming that the US-Japan Defence Treaty applies to the Diaoyu Islands.

It does not take rocket science to conclude that any further provocation or major misstep in this explosive situation may push the territorial dispute over the brink.

If Japan wants to instigate an armed conflict which may eventually involve China and the US on opposing sides, it would be a fantasy to imagine that any such conflict would enable one side to completely overwhelm the other without quickly escalating from a conventional war to a non-conventional war.

As the three largest economies in the world, the US, China and Japan have nothing to gain and everything to lose in such an armed conflict, and the world at large would suffer disastrous consequences.

Therefore it is time for greater courage, wisdom and vision to prevent any further escalation of tension between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, and it is time for building greater peace, stability and reconciliation in Northeast Asia.

Japan: Tetsuo Kotani
The situation around the Senkaku Islands is very dangerous. There is no territorial dispute as legally defined, since China’s claims over the islands have no consistency or legal grounding. This is why China is attempting to change the territorial status quo by force.

China successfully took control of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea from the Philippines last year by sending paramilitary ships to the shoal. But this will not work vis-a-vis Japan since the Japan Coast Guard is much more capable.

China’s seamanship is immature and its paramilitary ships sometimes lose manoeuvrability in the rough waters around the Senkakus. Its military has also taken provocative action such as pointing missile radar at Japanese ships and aircraft. As such, the possibility exists of accidents and escalation.

Japan has no intention of escalating the situation and is responding with restraint, while keeping communication channels open. It is China’s responsibility to explain why it kept silent about the islands for 76 years between 1895 and 1971. There are even documents and maps in which China acknowledged the islands as Japanese territory.

China should stop challenging Japan’s legitimacy by force and adopt peaceful means. If China wishes to settle this in court, the Japanese government would accept the challenge in accordance with international law. In doing so, however, China must be prepared to accept the ruling, even if it is not in China’s favour.

Asean: Lye Liang Fook
The manner in which the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute has unfolded between China and Japan has implications for Asean’s (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) relations with China. Asean, comprising 10 smaller countries, witnessed China adopting various measures in response to Japan’s nationalisation of the islands.

Besides their continued air and sea tussles near and over the islands, China has apparently tightened the economic screws on Japan. Japanese imports to China have dropped and Japanese businesses, especially its car manufacturers, have seen their sales in China plummet.

The fear by individual Asean countries is that Beijing would readily leverage on their growing economic dependence on China to force them to back down on issues Beijing considers to be in its national interests.

Already, the Philippines has found itself reeling from China’s wrath due to their differences over the Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island in the South China Sea.

What started out innocuously as illegal poaching by Chinese fisherman in waters off the shoal in April 2012 soon developed into a stand-off at sea that lasted several weeks.

Simultaneously, Philippine exports to China were subjected to more stringent checks and Chinese nationals were advised against visiting the Philippines. Most interestingly, while Philippine government vessels have withdrawn from the shoal area in an agreement reportedly struck by both sides in June 2012, the Chinese governmental vessels have apparently yet to comply. In this stand-off, the Philippines blinked first.

Although China appears to have won this “battle” over the shoal, this may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Given its heft, China would lose much credibility in Asean if it persists with this “hard” approach.

Instead, Asean would like China to pursue an outcome based on “mutual benefit” and “mutual respect”, to use China’s own diplomatic language.

Hughes is a professor of International Politics and Japanese Studies at the University of Warwick in the UK.

Victor is director of the China National Association of International Studies, linked to the Chinese Foreign Affairs ministry and a translator to former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping.

Tetsuo is a research fellow, Japan Institute of International Affairs, a think-tank with close links to the Foreign Affairs ministry.

Lye is assistant director, East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.