While the animosity between Japan and China centres on a contested set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, the roots of the dispute are complex and predate the Second World War.
A diplomatic, and not a military, resolution to the conflict is in the interests of both Japan and China, the two largest economies in Asia, with $340-billion a year in trade. This will not be easy to accomplish, but both countries should be motivated to avoid acts of war, given the potentially huge economic impact. Already Japan has had to temporarily close some of its Chinese operations, following days of protests.
Chinese authorities have tolerated – some say stage-managed – the demonstrations, while also taking care to avoid an escalation of the dispute. On Tuesday the government maintained a heavy police presence on the streets of Beijing, and sent generic texts to local cellphones calling on residents to show patriotism but not to “overdo it.”
China claims that the disputed archipelago, which it calls Diaoyu and which Japan calls Senkaku, is part of the country’s ancestral homeland, while Japan is firm in its position that it has had sovereignty over the islands. They are strategically located and believed to be rich in oil deposits. Last month the Japanese government bought from private owners the three islands it does not already own, further infuriating China.
Underlying the conflict is Chinese anger over what it sees as Japan’s failure to repent for its historical invasion of China, the raping of its women, and its conduct in the Second World War. Tuesday marked the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, the false bombing of a Japanese-owned railway, which Japan used as a pretext to invade China, 81 years ago. China’s rising power has also made it bolder in its maritime ambitions.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea governs sovereignty over coastal waters and disputes. As a last resort the countries could turn to the International Court of Justice to resolve the conflict. But diplomacy and compromise will still be needed, and both sides should be prepared to offer up some concessions if they are to end this rancorous chapter in the fraught Sino-Japanese relationship.