PEACE IS THE ONLY ANSWER IN CHINA-JAPAN ISLAND DISPUTE
By Zachary Fillingham
26 Jan 14. The East China Sea territorial dispute between China and Japan figured prominently in various geopolitical risk forecasts for 2014, and with good reason. Neither side shows any sign of standing down, and with every new military deployment near the contested area comes an increased risk of a small-scale military incident spiralling into war.
Anti-Japanese sentiment in China runs deep, fuelled by memories of Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation during World War II. These feelings have been strengthened by the Chinese education system and state-controlled media, along with frequent examples over the years of half-hearted and waffling contrition on the part of the Japanese government. They have even been absorbed into the national narrative of China’s rise, such that China will only receive the official stamp of superpowerdom once Japan has been fully eclipsed in East Asia – politically, economically, and militarily.
As architect of China’s rise and self-professed redeemer of the Chinese nation, the Communist Party of China (CCP) needs to take these feelings into account. To neglect to do so would contradict the Party’s own carefully-crafted national mythology, and consequently erode the legitimacy of its one-party rule.
The dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku in Japanese) is one issue where the CCP is prisoner to its own logic; thus, we shouldn’t expect any dovish overtures from Beijing, especially so long as the Abe administration insists on rattling the cage.
Though the underlying motivations may differ, Japan appears just as intent on not backing down. The resurgent nationalist vein that helped propel Shinzo Abe into power maintains that Japan has apologized enough for its militarist past, and it should now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other major powers in international society as a “normal,” aka not abashedly pacifistic, democratic country.
Japanese politics seem to be at a crossroads, one with any number of disconcerting historical parallels (interwar Germany for one). After decades of deflationary economic malaise and ringing condemnations from its neighbours, a political force has arrived promising a reason for Japanese people to hold their heads high again. The elixir of Abenomics has already worked its magic on the economy – at least for the time being. Now all that remains is the question of Japan’s role in East Asia: Will it be a passive pole of US military power, or an assertive regional player that actively leans into China’s expanding capabilities?
This is a question that Prime Minister Abe would happily answer if given the chance, and with his oft-stated dream of amending Japan’s pacifist constitution and incendiary visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, it’s no great secret what form his answer would take. Whether or not the Japanese public will allow him to do so is another story. Although recent polls have shown a troubling anti-China trend (over 90% of the Japanese public have an “unfavorable” impression of China), Japan’s pacifist worldview is still largely intact, with 57% of the population opposing a government push to reinterpret Article 9, which would allow the Japanese military to participate in collective defense operations with the United States.
With both sides stubbornly insisting on the righteousness of their cause, the Diaoyu dispute stands as a serious problem with no easy solution. Both governments know that war would be economically disastrous, with annual two-way trade between China and Japan in excess of $340 billion, yet war remains a distinct possibility if the present course is maintained.
The U.S. Diplomatically Sidelined
It follows that if peace is to reign in the East China Sea, an outside mediator might be needed to defuse tensions and foster some kind of constructive dialogue between China and Japan. At first glance, the United States appears to be the most likely