China and Japan are arguing over an island chain in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and Diaoyu Islands in China. These islands, which are little more than uninhabited rocks, are not valuable on their own.
For decades, Tokyo and Beijing had an agreement to keep the islands dispute quiet. Japan agreed not to carry out any new construction or let anyone land on the islands. China agreed to delay making any claim to the islands and not let the dispute interfere with trade and political relations. Although minor incidents occurred, usually between the Japanese coast guard and Chinese fishing vessels, the dispute played only a minor role in relations between the two countries.
The current disagreement began in April. During a visit to the United States, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a nationalist, said that the Tokyo city government was planning to buy three of the five Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private Japanese owner and eventually build security outposts there. This announcement forced the Japanese government to take some action. Facing public political pressure to secure Japan’s claim to the islands, the government determined that the “nationalization” of the islands was best policy. By keeping control over construction and landings, the central government would be able to keep up its side of the agreement with China on managing the islands.
China saw Japan’s proposed nationalization as an opportunity to stir up anti-Japanese feelings and Beijing quietly backed the move by a group of Hong Kong activists in August to sail to and land on the disputed islands. At the same time, Beijing prevented a Chinese-based fishing vessel from trying the same thing. That way, Beijing could use Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status as a way to distance itself from the action and have greater flexibility in dealing with Japan.
As expected, the Japanese coast guard arrested the Hong Kong activists and took over their ship, but Tokyo quickly released them to avoid increasing tensions. Less than a month later, after Japan’s final decision to purchase the islands from their private Japanese owner, anti-Japanese protests swept China. Although many of these protests were managed by the government, the Chinese began to clamp down when some demonstrations got out of control. While still printing anti-Japanese statements, Chinese state-run media ran stories about local governments’ efforts to identify and punish protesters who turned violent and warn that nationalist pride is no excuse for destructive behavior.
Now, both China and Japan are working to keep the dispute under control. Neither side can publicly give in on its demands, and both sides are looking for ways to gain politically without allowing the situation to get worse.
The islands dispute is occurring as China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, are both experiencing political crises at home and facing uncertain economic paths forward. But the dispute also reflects the very different positions of the two countries in their developmental history and in East Asia’s balance of power.
While China’s economic expansion may have slowed, its military development is still growing. The Chinese military is becoming a more modern fighting force, more active in influencing Chinese foreign policy, and more assertive of its role regionally.
Japan is moving away from its post-World War II military limits. With China’s growing military strength, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and even South Korean military expansion, Japan is worried about potential threats to its maritime interests and has begun to take action. The United States has encouraged Tokyo’s efforts to take a more active role in regional and international security. For example, Japan has raised the status of the defense agency, expanded training operations within its armed forces and is working with U.S. anti-missile systems and is sending out its own helicopter carriers.
Both countries see the rise of nationalism as a tool, both are planning an increasingly active role for their militaries, and both occupy the same strategic space. With Washington increasing its focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing is worried that Japan could assist the United States with limiting China’s growth..
The United States’ interest is maintaining a balance between Asia’s two key powers so neither is able to challenge Washington’s own leadership in the Pacific. During World War II, this led the United States to lend support to China in its struggle against imperial Japan. The United States’ current role backing a Japanese military resurgence against China’s growing power falls along the same line.