Fated for dispute – China and Japan


Tensions between China and Japan over handful of islets in the East China Sea are showing no signs of abating. The September 2010 confrontation between the two countries over a Chinese fishing trawler’s provocations in the waters of the Senkaku Islands displayed how easily trivial incidents can spiral into major diplomatic confrontations. China and Japan have had diplomatic tensions in the past as well but the level of seriousness in this particular incident is much more than any other erstwhile happening. The Japanese arrest of the captain and his extended detention invoked a strong reaction from China. Japanese nationals in China were arrested for illicit behavior near Chinese military bases, and a reported embargo of Chinese shipments of rare earth metals destined for Japanese ports, only exaggerated the tensions. What’s even more disturbing is that there seems to be no political framework to settle the spiteful confrontation in the South China Sea over the claim of disputed islands between Japan and China along with South Korea.

The dispute is over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu in China. The islands are included within the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, meaning that a defense of the islands by Japan would require the United States to come to Japan’s aid. Hence the island is a crisis not only for China and Japan but US as well. The escalating friction between two of Asia’s biggest powers is undoubtedly posing a threat to the Asia-Pacific as a whole. Moreover, U.S. commitment to its security alliance with Japan has increased concerns that mounting friction between China and Japan could also have global implications. China has been adamant over its claim to the islands, and neither side is backing down. Present Chinese antipathy to Japan has its roots in the brutal Japanese occupation of much of China in the Second World War –which has left deep scars on the Chinese psyche

In defense, China in November 2013 set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that included the islands, which required all aircraft entering the zone to enter a flight plan and to submit radio information – a clear claim of sovereignty over the islands.

To further complicate the matter, the ADIZ also included a rock claimed by South Korea. In response to China’s authoritative nature, the US flew unarmed B52 aircraft through the ADIZ without complying with Chinese requirements and stated that the US would stand by its treaty obligations to defend Japan if it was attacked. The question, though, is why has the territorial dispute flared up so much suddenly over the past two years? One possible answer is that national pride has taken a toll in both countries. In the case of China, rapid economic expansion and portrayal as the next super power has indeed infused a feeling of superiority and need for subjugation and dominance. Similarly, Japan too fears losing its position as an Asian power, and worries about its foothold in the international community slipping away.

China has insisted that its rise is peaceful but China’s military power has also alarmed the US, hence the nervousness of its neighbors is understandable. If these tensions occurred in Europe there would be several regional institutions through would act as pacifiers but nothing like this exists in East Asia. Countries are left to solve their disputes bilaterally, without the support of an institutional framework. This allows stronger countries to pick off weaker ones individually, which is what china exactly does. This shifting balance of regional power suggests that Japan and China must develop more reliable and consistent dispute resolution practices if they are to continue to avoid direct conflict along their maritime boundaries. The strategic intent of Japan’s government is to support and promote a regional approach to maritime security but China has very sternly maintained its stand of defending every inch of its territory and propagates that there is no room for compromise with Japan over territorial or historical disputes. Efforts at reconciliation in the bilateral relationship have been insufficient by China and such claims only expose the unwillingness of china to establish mutual peace.

DAVE ALLEN, photo by Yvon from Ottawa

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