Powder Keg off the Coast


If China and Japan ever come to blows, it will be over 6.3 square kilometers of barren rock in the East China Sea.

The island chain in dispute, called “Senkaku” by the Japanese and “Diaoyu” by the Chinese, is located between Taiwan and Japan. For most of history, the Senkaku islands were uninhabited, but recently they have been a flashpoint for high tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.

Maps of the Ming and Qing dynasties indicate that Chinese and Japanese mariners have used the islands as geographic markers since the 16th century. In 1895, Japan claimed the islands as part of its victory settlement of the Sino-Japanese War. The islands fell under U.S. administration in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, and then reverted to Japanese control in 1972 along with Okinawa. In 1969, just three years before the Senkakus were transferred to Japan, a UN report indicated the presence of underwater gas and oil resources in the area. When the U.S. relinquished authority over the islands, both China and Taiwan immediately laid claim to the area, and the dispute formally began.

Taiwan vouched for its de jure right over the islands under the “One China” concept, by which Taiwan and the mainland simultaneously claim virtually all of each other’s territory. China has more aggressively asserted ownership over the Senkakus. When Sino-Japanese relations were normalized in 1972, Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping articulated a long-term view of the conflict: “It does not matter if this question is shelved for some time, say, ten years. Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all.”


For many years, the dispute lay dormant. Sporadic incidents sparked political exchanges and military exercises, but on each occasion diplomatic efforts and the passage of time returned tensions to the tense status quo. The most recent war of words, however, erupted nearly four years ago and has not yet subsided. In July 2010, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese patrol boat and Japan’s Coast Guard detained the captain. In response, China cut off exports of rare earth elements to Japan, a resource Japan relies upon for industrial production.

Tensions have only escalated since then. In 2012, Japan purchased the islands from their private owner and nationalized them, a move intended to preempt the right-wing mayor of Tokyo from doing the same. This move, however, sparked massive nationalist street protests in China, along with anti-Japanese violence, vandalism, and attacks on Japanese businesses.

In November 2013, China established an “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, which would require all aircraft in the vicinity of the islands to declare themselves to the Chinese military. The U.S. and Japan declared the ADIZ invalid and have both since violated it by conducting standard test flights through the area, including tests with American B-52 bombers. For its part, China has sent fighter jets to patrol the zone.

IMG_9941The Politic discussed recent Senkaku developments with Jessica Chen Weiss, an assistant political science professor at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, whose expertise lies in modern China and Chinese foreign relations. The Politic interviewed Weiss on the same topic in fall 2012; within less than a year and a half, the dispute has already drawn closer to a shooting war than ever before.

“The risk of conflict is probably higher now than it has been [previously],” says Weiss, citing “a confluence of issues” — “underlying, unresolved territorial disputes” exacerbated by “power transitions in the region,” including an increasingly confident China and “Japanese insecurity.” Weiss went on to note that the islands’ significance is “a lot more about national pride than it is about natural resources…If it were just about economics, then there are solutions. [China and Japan] could pursue joint development as both sides agreed to do in 2008.”

Much of the current dispute falls under the long shadow of the Second World War and the legacy of Japan’s eight year invasion and occupation of China. The brutal defeats and human rights abuses China suffered at the hands of Japan left deep wounds on the collective Chinese psyche. However, according to Helen Gao ’11, a Beijing-based freelance writer who has published pieces for The Atlantic on Chinese domestic affairs, “A lot of people at the [anti-Japanese] protests in Beijing were not people who would have had experiences” of such hardship, not even secondhand through parents or grandparents. Nonetheless, the prevailing concept that “China should not be at the mercy of foreign powers” is firmly ingrained from the so-called “century of humiliation,” the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, when empire after empire victimized China. “We can never underestimate the influence this time will have on China’s character,” said Gao.

It is within this historical context that the PRC claims that the Allies’ 1945 Potsdam Declaration, made after Japanese surrender, invalidates any right Japan may have had to the islands under international law between 1895 and 1945. The Chinese government media frequently cites the following passage as justification: “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, Shikoku, and such minor islands as we determine.” China Daily, a state-run news outlet, recently ran an editorial calling for Japan to “respect the postwar international order.” If “respecting” the order means adopting a more conciliatory stance with regards to the islands and its checkered past, Japan has done anything but.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister, has raised many hackles within China as well as among allies such as South Korea through his repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. This site commemorates the fallen Japanese of World War II, including convicted war criminals. In response to Abe’s comments criticizing the newly established ADIZ, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang declared that “the Japanese leader does not reflect on Japan’s aggression…and attempts to turn back the wheel of history,” as reported by the state-run People’s Daily. Abe also inaugurated a new holiday, Restoration of Sovereignty Day, to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan. More significantly, he has moved to end Japan’s de jure ban on a standing military. Under the current American-written constitution, Japan has renounced the right to declare war and is limited to a “Self-Defense Force.” Yet Weiss notes that even under current nominal restrictions, Japan currently maintains one of the most powerful militaries in the world, specifically the fifth largest by annual spending.

When asked if the Chinese government was manipulating the territorial dispute as a means of deflecting criticism of domestic affairs to focus on external matters, Weiss rejects the idea that “China is using or manufacturing the current dispute.” Looking at Japan, Weiss also dismisses the notion that the Japanese government generated an artificial crisis of convenience, instead pointing to popular support for a stiffer foreign policy. She frames the dispute as “not a case of the government manufacturing a crisis, but rather hemmed in by domestic vulnerability.” Speaking from Beijing, Gao agreed with Weiss’s assessment. Although “the public doesn’t really have decision-making power,” especially for foreign policy, “public pressure is one reason that keeps the government acting aggressive,” as “a lot of people back at home expect them to show that they are [exercising] strong leadership.”

Weiss sees Chinese authorities as wary of this pressure, noting that, “in fact, the government is very afraid of protests that ostensibly target Japan but provide cover for other dissent.” She elaborates that “the government is very choosy about when it allows or encourages [protests].” Gao speculates along the same lines: “government doesn’t want public sentiment to run wild because they are afraid that the people will direct their anger at the government.” It wishes the people “to talk only about Japan but not about problems within China.” Beijing worries that when crowds gather to express dissatisfaction with foreign affairs, domestic unrest could ensue.

Gao explains, “I don’t think people were protesting Japan intentionally as a cover; they were genuinely angry at Japan. But when you have a large crowd of hundreds and thousands, if the anger starts to turn, the people can start thinking of the government and domestic grievances, and I think that’s what the government is fearful about.”

Despite the government’s fear that nationalism could run amok, Weiss described articles in the state-run media as “intentionally stoking anger.” The journalists “wanted [the people] to believe that China is the victim,” playing into China’s humiliation narrative. Gao further describes how many average Chinese believe that “Japan is only able to act the way it does because it’s backed by the United States.”

Rhetorically, the U.S. stands by its Japanese ally. In 2013, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to condemn China’s aggressive claims to the islands in the East China Sea. Weiss warns, however, of the possibility of the U.S. being perceived as “paper tigers” and the “danger in taking a reactive stance rather than a proactive stance” given that “we are as much embroiled in this situation as they are.” She calls the U.S. response one of “intentional ambiguity,” where potential responses to an escalation will depend on what “precipitating event” triggers a crisis. However, she said that “each day the parties look to the U.S. … our actions affect theirs, and we don’t have the luxury of waiting to see.”

The confrontation between Japan, with its legacy of naval dominance and historical power, and China, an increasingly assertive power, has drawn parallels to the diplomatic, economic, and military relationship between the British Empire and Germany in the early twentieth century. Weiss reacts to this comparison cautiously, noting that “historical analogies are often provocative, but it remains to be seen what we can learn from this particular comparison.” She adds that Japanese leaders in particular were fond of making this comparison to emphasize that “economic interdependence before World War I was insufficient to prevent conflict.” This interpretation is meant to demonstrate the possibility that in the future “these two very interdependent economies would go to war for strategic or political reasons.” In the newly globalized world, “even though it would seem very irrational…those [economic] benefits and ties could be insufficient” to prevent war.

The Senkakus are remarkable in their deceptive insignificance as tiny spots of land, when in fact they threaten East Asia with open war between great powers for the first time in generations. The editorial board of China’s Global Times, a subsidiary paper of the People’s Daily, agreed: “The rest of the world will find it laughable to see two Asian powers so fiercely at odds with each other over these uninhabited islands.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *