Nevertheless, the official line from Japan is that everything is normal.
The Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force invited The Globe and Mail – the only non-Japanese media organization on the trip – for an overhead look at the situation on the water. The message they wanted to convey was that everything was normal, the situation was under control, even though officers admitted they were couldn’t even try to guess what Beijing will do next.
“We’re watching the Chinese closely, they’re watching us closely. It’s a standoff,” explained one crewman as he looked out the window of the P-3 plane, scanning for more Chinese boats. A public relations officer cut him off, and asked that the rest of his sentence not be translated. “Everything is just business as usual,” the media officer, Lieutenant Commander Koichi Seki, finished on behalf.
The Chinese say business as usual is over. “Though there is still a long way to go, China has effectively fought against the arrogance of Japan, forcing it to accept China’s new stance over the Diaoyu Islands,” crowed a recent editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper. “The world accepts that China is making moves to safeguard its legitimate interests.”
Internationally, the waters are muddier now than they were before September when the Japanese government bought three of the five islets from the Kurihara family, which had owned them for the past four decades. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he hoped to calm relations with China by “nationalizing” the islands and blocking a more provocative bid by the right-wing governor of Tokyo. But the move backfired as Beijing went on the offensive, unleashing its ships and encouraging tens of thousands of Chinese to show their “patriotism” by staging days of sometimes-violent anti-Japanese protests around the country.
The Japanese position remains that there is no territorial dispute to discuss. But that now seems at odds with the edgy situation around the islands.
“They won’t say they accept this [that the islands are disputed], but they are just helpless in the face of this fact. Our power is much stronger than theirs, and we are also much closer than they are to the islands,” said Xu Guangyu, a retired general in China’s People’s Liberation Army who now heads a think tank. “Now that our patrols have become regularized, they are actually very busy just trying to match us.”
“While asking [the Chinese ships] to leave, we also have to be aware of safety. Their ship is also a national ship so we comprehend each other. It is a sensitive nation-to-nation matter, so we need to make sure the matter will not escalate,” said Rear-Adm. Toshiya Yamazaki, deputy commander of the Japan Coast Guard base on Okinawa, which has seen its resources stretched trying to keep up with the daily Chinese maneuvers.
Asked whether he thinks the Chinese side is gaining the upper hand in the showdown, Rear Adm. Yamazaki sounds like a man who wishes he could take a tougher line towards the intruding Chinese ships. “That is a matter for the national government to decide.”
Which means the situation will remain in flux for some time.
“In both countries, the leadership transitions probably decrease the willingness to take a more cooperative, or less escalatory, response, and in that sense it’s encouraging tougher policies,” said Taylor Fravel, an expert on East Asian security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He said an error at sea could quickly sea one or both sides sending warships towards the islands. “If there was an incident, a collision between government vessels where personnel from one or both sides were injured or killed, there would be demands from both sides for a more forceful response.”
How the dispute started
In the background of the Japan-China islands dispute is the United States, which maintains a heavy military presence on nearby Okinawa, much to the resentment of a local population tired of screaming fighter jets and misbehaving troops. The U.S. is bound by treaty to protect Japan in the case of attack, although it’s far from clear whether that document applies in the event of a strictly naval clash in disputed waters.
The question of who’s right and who’s wrong in this showdown depends on interpretation of history. The islands were Chinese until 1895, when they were surrendered to Japan along with Taiwan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War. They’ve been under Tokyo’s rule since then, except for the period of U.S. occupation, although Beijing and Taipei say they should have been returned to Chinese control following the end of the Second World War.
Taiwan also claims the islands, and dispatched a flotilla of fishing boats and fishery patrol vessels to the area in late September, leading to a swirling clash at sea with the Japan Coast Guard that saw each side bombard the other with water cannon.