JPRI Critique Vol. XVIII No. 6 (October 2012)
The Crisis over the Senkaku Islands
by David Arase

After the Japanese government completed the purchase of islands in the Senkaku/Diaoyu island group on September 11, 2012, Chinese government denunciations and media commentary incited street protests against Japan across China, and Japanese businesses, factories, and the Japanese ambassador’s car came under mob attack. At the height of the hysteria, on September 17 – the same day that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in China for three days of talks – Chinese television and radio reported that one thousand ships set sail to occupy the islands. They never materialized, but Japan sent half its coast guard patrol ships to the islands where they confronted a dozen or more Chinese patrol vessels while the media spread talk of possible war.

The crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in Sino-Japanese relations is not an isolated incident. It is just the latest expression of anti-Japanese thoughts and feelings. So after I deal with the details of the latest crisis I want put it in the context of China’s relationship with Japan, the United States, and other countries.

The Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands is a group of five islets is claimed by both Japan and China. The Japanese claim is based on an uncontested act of incorporation in 1895. From 1945, the United States controlled it, along with Okinawa, until 1972. In 1968, nearby oil and gas potential was discovered. When the United States agreed in 1971 to return the Senkaku Islands (along with Okinawa) to Japanese sovereignty and administrative control, Taiwan made a historical claim them. China then claimed the islands as part of Taiwan.

The Japanese government has owned one islet and the rest were privately owned. Because the islands are disputed with Taiwan and China, the national government has forbidden development of the islands. Recently, a Japanese family owning three of the islets wanted to sell them. The Japanese government purchased them on September 11. The Chinese government drew attention to the purchase, and the mainstream media and Netizens whipped up anti-Japanese hysteria and war talk in China.

The significance of this purchase has been misunderstood. It stopped a plan of the right wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who wanted to purchase the islands and do things there to incite conflict with China. By stirring up trouble, he hoped the Japanese public could be driven to abandon pacifism, revise their Peace Constitution, and rearm. The national government put a stop to this plan by paying the private owners more than Ishihara offered for the three islands. It should be noted that the Japanese government already owned one island; it did not need to own more. The purchase was meant to keep the islands peaceful and unoccupied.

It is amazing how the media made the Japanese government’s move to stop Ishihara sound like Japan was invading China again. The news and commentary about the “nationalization” of the islands reinforced Japan’s enemy image in the minds of the Chinese people. But is this image based in reality?

If an enemy is someone who can attack you, and has a desire to see you fail, anyone with an Internet connection can discover that Japan is not China’s enemy. Japan has no nuclear weapons, no missiles that can hit China, no bombers, and no aircraft carriers. The entire Japanese military has less than 240,000 men. Its Constitution forbids Japanese troops from fighting on foreign territory. From these facts, anyone can see that Japan has no ability to attack China. Nor does it want to. There are no street mobs in cities across Japan attacking Chinese restaurants and businesses, and no one in the media is calling for war. More than anything, Japan wants to sell things to China. It does not want China to fail. Japan wants China to prosper, as this will only benefit Japan and the rest of the world. It has been this way since 1945.

The real enemy of ordinary Chinese is poverty, inequality, corruption, unaffordable health care, a poisoned environment, and absence of legal protections for ordinary people. Ironically, Japan could be a useful ally in attacking some of these problems. So why is Japan perceived to be China’s enemy? Who benefits from this kind of distraction from China’s real problems?

Turning now to the timing of this crisis, some have pointed to rising tensions inside China before the next Party Congress as an explanation. Filling the media with anti-Japanese news could be a useful distraction and a release valve for pent up popular anger. But there is an external dimension as well that fewer have pointed to as an explanation. Was it coincidence that the crisis peaked as Defense Secretary Panetta arrived in Asia? Because he came to explain what the U.S. strategic pivot toward Asia meant for China, if it was not planned, the coincidence of the crisis and his visit was at least very fortuitous.

On the one hand, China was able to use the crisis to make some key points. China signaled to the United States that the pivot did not intimidate China. The visit of a U.S. Defense Secretary would not prevent China from threatening the most important American ally in Asia. The fact that Panetta did not cancel his visit showed how much more important China was than Japan. All this reminded Japan that it was no match for China. During Panetta’s talks in Beijing, street demonstrators attacked the U.S. ambassador’s car as it entered the U.S. Embassy. The attackers blamed the United States for encouraging Japan to defy China.

On the other hand, Secretary Panetta had an opportunity during his visit to explain how the U.S.-Japan alliance was relevant to the Sino-Japanese dispute. In the past, the United States has stated that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty obligation to defend Japan against attack includes the Senkaku Islands. The United States does not judge which side has the right to own the islands. But so long as Japan can say it controls the islands, the United States will support Japan if it is attacked there.

Right now China apparently believes that by sending increasing numbers of fishing vessels and civilian patrol ships to the islands, China could to establish control over the islands in a way that does not amount to a military attack. If China can gain control of the islands in this way, the dispute would not trigger U.S. involvement. The American position could be interpreted this way, at least. Panetta had an opportunity to clarify the position of the United States and that of Japan. His talks were reportedly “candid.”

The timing of the crisis was unfortunate for plans to celebrate 40 years of peaceful, friendly, and mutually beneficial Sino-Japanese relations after normalization in 1972. The long-scheduled anniversary activities (that were supposed to begin the week after the Panetta visit) had to be cancelled due to the crisis. China squarely blamed Japan for the cancellation.

Turning now to what impact the crisis may have, it is possible that Japanese feelings toward China may be changed in a lasting way. China’s handling of the anniversary celebrations shows that four decades of Japanese effort to cultivate a peaceful, friendly relationship with China has yielded very disappointing results. The Japanese government is demanding compensation for damage to Japanese property inflicted by Chinese street protestors. Japanese businesses now are finding that routine applications for Chinese work visas for employees are inexplicably delayed. Japanese business is scaling back investment plans in China. Japanese tourists are choosing other destinations. Strategists are considering more carefully how China’s rise is affecting Japanese security. Japan as a whole is left to doubt whether any friendship with China is possible. Henceforth, optimism will be difficult when dealing with China.

Meanwhile, India and countries in Southeast Asia seem to show genuine appreciation for Japanese efforts to build friendly relations, are willing to settle differences peacefully, and will welcome Japanese investment, trade, and aid diverted from China. As the costs and risks of doing business in China rise for Japan, Southeast Asia and India are places that Japan will naturally turn to. When it does, it will find a sympathetic reception from countries that receive similar treatment from China. And the value of India as an economic and strategic partner rises in direct relation to the rise of doubts in Japan regarding the possibility of peaceful friendship with China.

Will China wake up to the fact that it needs friendly, cooperative relations with its neighbors if it is to confront and defeat its real enemies? Hopefully, it will do so before it loses the trust and good will of neighbors who, like Japan, really want China to succeed.


Dr. David M. Arase is Professor of Politics at Pomona College. He is author or co-author of many acclaimed books, such as Buying Power: The Political Economy of Japanese Foreign Aid (Lynne Rienner) and The US-Japan Alliance: Managing Soft and Hard Power in East Asia (Routledge). He is currently conducting research and teaching in China as Resident Professor of Politics at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. This Critique is an extended version of an op-ed that originally appeared in the Chinese-language edition of The New York Times on September 28, 2012.

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