While the Middle East is consumed with anti-American protests and violence, East Asia is witnessing an unprecedented confrontation between China and Japan over a small group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, a dispute that may escalate into conflict between two of the world’s most capable military forces.
Yesterday marked the 81st anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China in 1931, which led to notorious Japanese war crimes such as the Nanjing Massacre and large-scale chemical warfare against civilians. But the annual low-key observance of that event turned into nationwide anger and violent outbursts in many Chinese cities, with protesters denouncing the Japanese government’s move to “nationalize” the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands and claims historical sovereignty over.
It is ironic that this new low of bilateralism comes in the very month that China and Japan are to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations. Back in 1972, leaders in both countries avoided the Diaoyu/Senkaku disputes for the sake of developing broader Sino-Japanese relations. And the understanding was that the two sides would shelve the sovereignty issue while Japan kept de facto control of the islands.
Since then, the countries have evolved into two of the world’s most interdependent economic allies, with annual trade reaching $345-billion. China has been Japan’s largest trading partner since 2005 and now accounts for 21 per cent of Japan’s total trade (the United States accounts for just 12 per cent).
Millions of Japanese and Chinese tourists visit their neighbours, and hundreds of thousands of them work, study and live in the other country.
But intensified interactions between the world’s second- and third-largest economies have not translated into closer ties in other areas. While more than 70 per cent of Japanese and Chinese viewed each other favourably in the late 1970s, when the two countries signed a friendship treaty, the honeymoon is long over today, with some 80 per cent in both countries registering unfavourable feelings toward each other.
This may also explain why the on-and-off bilateral talks on joint development of the rich energy resources in the disputed area have gone nowhere. Instead, the Japanese government – partly pushed by right-wing nationalists such as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who openly denies the Nanjing Massacre ever happened – has taken unilateral steps to legitimize its ownership of the islands while denying there is even a territorial quarrel with China.
Tokyo’s motivation for such moves can be understood in the broader context of the rapid rise of China and the relative decline of Japan. There is a sense of urgency and anxiety on the Japanese side – that it’s better to “settle” the issue early on, before China becomes too strong.
Beijing interpreted Japan’s actions as a clear and hostile break from the status quo and the four-decade-long agreement to “shelve” the issue. Facing strong domestic pressure, partly fuelled by 800-million netizens and the thousands who have taken to the streets, the Chinese government has taken a number of countermeasures: announcing China’s territorial sea baselines of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands; submitting to the United Nations for approval of 200 nautical miles of continental shelf that includes the disputed isles; sending surveillance ships to the disputed waters for regular patrols; and stern warnings of battle readiness in the form of exercises by the Chinese military.
But cool heads must prevail in both Beijing and Tokyo. The first step is for both sides to back off from the current highly confrontational standoff. The Chinese government must further discourage anti-Japanese demonstrations, some of which have included unacceptable behaviour such as racial insults and attacking businesses related to Japan. For its part, Japan should drop its plan to nationalize the islands and prevent further landings by its own extreme nationalists.
Next, the two countries should engage in talks aimed at setting up a joint crisis-management regime to cope with unexpected situations and to avoid miscalculations from either side. Instead of continuing to launch military drills, both countries should either refrain from entering the disputed waters or, better yet, jointly patrol the areas instead of shouting at each other from the sea and air.
For long-term solutions, both countries must realize that their bilateralism is far more important than these isolated islands, and that an all-out war, either economic or military, would be extremely costly to both sides. Both governments must resist the extreme nationalist elements that are trying to set the diplomatic agenda.
Both the United States and Canada, and for that matter the rest of the world, will suffer tremendously if tensions between Japan and China spin out of control. They should encourage de-escalation by both sides. Washington, in particular, must walk a fine line in discouraging Beijing from considering any military options while not sending the wrong signal to Tokyo that it is by Japan’s side even if it is willing to use military force to settle the dispute. For all the parties involved, the only goal at the moment is to maintain peace and stability in the most dynamic economic region in the world.
Wenran Jiang, twice a Japan Foundation fellow, is a political science professor at the University of Alberta and a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.