September 27, 2012
TSG IntelBrief: China-Japan: Escalating Tensions in the East Pacific
As of late September 2012, tensions have inflamed once again over ownership of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu or Diaoyutai Islands in China and Taiwan), which has been a source of bitterness between various Chinese and Japanese governments for over 100 years. The dispute over these uninhabited fishing grounds and oil-rich island outcroppings is snarled in the tangled remnants of colonial and post-World War II history.
In 1895, after Japan's victory over the Qing Dynasty in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan gained control of both Taiwan (then Formosa) and the minuscule islands known as the Senkakus. Japan's surrender to the allies in World War II left Taiwan in the hands of China's then-Nationalist regime, a former U.S. ally. (That regime later became the government of the Republic of China, thus Taiwan's involvement.) At the same time, the Senkaku Islands remained under the administration of the U.S. government, which returned them to Japanese administration in 1972 over the objections of mainland China, then under its current Communist government. Thus, the status of the Senkakus today is a festering legacy involving all four governments: China (and occasionally Hong Kong, part of China since 1997), Japan, Taiwan, and the United States.
Backdrop of China-Japan Tensions
For decades, relations between China and Japan have been dogged by historical cultural rivalries exacerbated by lingering wartime grievances. Both sides, often successfully, have sought to keep these tensions manageable, driven in part by geographical proximity, substantial bilateral trade and investment relations, and regular diplomatic exchanges. But political and security circumstances sometimes complicate these management efforts. Some of the divisive issues that have arisen in the past decade include Chinese objections to Japan's benign view (and occasional defense) of its own actions in World War II, including its wartime narratives in school textbooks; visits by Japanese politicians to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan's war dead, including some Japanese war criminals; Japan's increasing wariness over China's expanding military buildup and strategic regional intentions; and competing territorial claims in the maritime arena, including over the Senkakus. These and other similar controversies have led to sometimes destructive protests and demonstrations, particularly on the Chinese side.
The Current Crisis
The spark for the most recent crisis over the Senkakus seemed to be struck in July and August 2012 during a series of maritime incidents involving patrol vessels and nationalistic activists from Japan, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Japan, which administers the Senkakus, detained several Chinese activists who swam to shore, sparking a round of Chinese protests followed by several weeks of competing and bullying Foreign Ministry statements denouncing the actions of the other side. The fuse was lit in early September 2012 by several cascading actions over a two-week period:
• The Japanese government announced its purchase of the Senkaku Islands, allegedly from a private Japanese owner, thus making them official Japanese government possessions for the first time.
• Widespread and sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests broke out in China, in some instances reportedly abetted by government officials.
• China announced a plan to seek UN support for extending its outer continental shelf in the East China Sea to include the Senkakus.
• China, Japan, and Taiwan sent patrol ships to the Senkakus to demonstrate their respective sovereignty claims.
• Talks between Chinese and Japanese Deputy Foreign Ministers, held on September 25, reportedly failed to reach agreement on the Senkaku dispute.
Some analysts and media pundits suggest the current dispute will wane, as have earlier Sino-Japanese disputes. They say each side has too much to lose in a potential conflict, and cite Beijing's ability to control nationalistic fervor in China. But there are differences in the current dispute that indicate the stakes are becoming unusually and disagreeably high. China's growing economic power and military confidence, discussed in earlier IntelBriefs (Japan's Increasing Wariness of Chinese Military Ambitions and The Coming End to China's Policy of Non-Intervention) have given it new confidence to pursue territorial claims it previously sought to mitigate.
A succession of Japanese Defense White Papers, most recently the report of July 31, 2012, have devoted increasingly more ink to Japan's concerns about China's military might and intentions. Both governments are facing heightened nationalist fervor and political dilemmas at home that restrict their room for bold political maneuver or conciliation abroad. And both sides have taken aggressive new positions in the current dispute — beyond those they have taken in the past — from which it may be harder to retreat.
The consequences for the United States are expanding as well. Although the United States officially takes no position on the sovereignty of the Senkakus, the U.S. announcement in June 2012 that it would "rebalance" its military forces to focus more on Asia suggests that U.S. policymakers envision a larger U.S. role in managing any potential regional conflict. In the middle of the current dispute, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited first Japan and then China the week of September 17. While in Japan, he announced the deployment of a second new missile-defense radar system on Japanese territory. Although the Secretary assured Chinese officials in his subsequent visit there that the deployment is not directed toward China, he reportedly also reminded Beijing — as U.S. officials have stated on several occasions — that the Senkaku Islands are covered under the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty.
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