By: Michael Ingram
Eight uninhabited and desolate islands in the East China Sea are at the center of an intensifying dispute between the People’s Republic of China and Japan. To Japan (and to most of the world) they are known as the Senkaku islands, but China has its own terminology for the rocky islets: Diaoyu. While they were recently partially nationalized by the Japanese government from a private Japanese owner, the potential for vast underwater oil reserves drives the acerbic rhetoric of ownership and protection from both China and Japan. These islands have become an object of national pride for both nations, and the problem is being exacerbated by a troubling trend in the politics of the region – nationalism. A growing military presence around the islands notwithstanding, the danger lies in how the leaders of China and Japan are managing the mounting tensions. Despite all-time high levels of economic cooperation in East Asia, the increasingly insatiable demand for resources coupled with a desire to bolster influence in the region may turn these potentially worthless spots of land into a catalyst for war.
Japan and China share a history of conflict, and the grim memories of World War II still weigh heavily on the minds of both nations. Sino-Japanese relations have been historically chilly, but the territorial dispute has heralded calls for militarization. China has been reluctant to use expeditionary military force in the past (the last time being a short war with Vietnam in 1979); yet recent factional struggles within China’s singular ruling party has given the military more say in the governing of the country, and their tone is increasingly aggressive. Unfortunately, the newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party seem to
be inching Japanese policy to the far right, following China down the rabbit hole. Abe has surrounded himself with leaders who pine for the days of the Empire of the Rising Sun, and civilian leaders in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be inadvertently loosening their grip on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The situation is a recipe for tragedy; red lines are being drawn and both sides are ratcheting up the pressure.
Compounding this danger, the Senkaku dispute is quickly becoming reminiscent of the pre-war period of WWI. The region is becoming ever more divided; each state entrenched in its strategic interests. Territorial disputes are nothing new, but the rising tide of nationalism on both sides has the potential to eliminate calm decision-making from the tool kits of negotiators. Wars can begin in a deceptively harmless manner and escalate quickly thereafter. In the coming months, neither side
is likely to abandon their inflammatory language in the decades old dispute, but something must be done to alleviate the tensions.
China’s eyes are simultaneously set on large swaths of the South China Sea, ruffling the feathers of many other of its neighbors particularly the Philippines, Vietnam, and perennial enemy Taiwan. China’s aims to monopolize the East and South China Seas, stripping smaller nations of valuable offshore resources and balkanizing international waterways and trade routes. While the Senkakus are part of a grander set of territorial disputes, the islands are setting the stage for conflict between the two most power actors in the region. The United States in particular has much to lose from such a conflict. The United States’ desire to maintain stable relations with China can be forgotten about if it has to assist Japan militarily per our mutual defense agreement. Picking sides also risks raising tensions on other regional issues such as supplying Taiwan with military technology. American interests in sensitively managing China’s rise while fostering meaningful bilateral relations can easily be derailed by rash actions by an ally like Japan.
The Senkaku Islands dispute is not destined to dissolve into the next world conflict. They might be a spur for international saber-rattling, but there are many countervailing forces against the conflict’s escalation. China’s civilian leaders’ main objective for the PLA lies in quelling insurrection from its vast population, while Japan has a strong democratic tradition and military forces with a strict mandate for defense only. Yet nationalism remains the prime obstacle to laying a foundation for peaceful resolution to the conflict. With China’s generals and Japan’s right-wing politicians using national media to stoke the fires of war inside their citizens, nationalism could turn the dispute into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In November, the CCP’s general secretary Xi Jinping, the highest ranking Chinese politician and commander-in-chief of the PLA, debuted a troubling proclamation to not back down from territorial disputes. These sentiments have been echoed by Abe’s new government who are attempting to revitalize the Japanese armed forces and expand their mandate. If the Chinese and Japanese people start urging for government action in response to perceived transgressions, the militaristic elements in each state may have an opportunity to actualize their rhetoric.
A quick flip through a book of 20th century history will yield countless testaments to the aftermath of unchecked nationalism. Japan’s pre-WWII history itself is partially responsible for the conditions that have led to the current clash. The greatest hope lies in the two sides realizing that there is much to gain through cooperation, and much, much more to lose through conflict. Though the Chinese government is notoriously opaque, the CCP have a lot of economic stock riding on their country’s peaceful rise to great power status. The Japanese are still readily conscious about past misadventures under the influence of nationalism. The United States too has a stake in both sides’ peaceful reconciliation, for the continued security of the region and economic stability. However, it must walk a fine line if it wants to act as a voice of reason. What is clear is that the brewing nationalist ideology is increasingly becoming more mainstream, and nationalism is the one ingredient that may cloud collective judgment and exacerbate the issue to its breaking point. The Senkaku dispute does not represent an impossible hurdle to peace in East Asia, but without a careful handling of the emergent nationalist sentiments, we could soon be nursing several more victims of history.