No end in sight for Japan-China row


East Asia is trapped in a vicious cycle of escalating tensions, with China’s rising power giving Japanese hawks legitimacy in their bid to bolster the military—exactly what Beijing says it fears.

The United States—rival to one power, ally to the other—finds itself walking a tightrope, with Vice President Joe Biden in China this week urging restraint to “reduce the possibility of crisis or mistake”, according to a U.S. administration official.

But that is hard when relations between Asia’s two biggest economies are so poisoned by history. Every time Beijing summons the demons of Japan’s past aggression, Tokyo plays on fears of Chinese domination to come.

“This is a battle about pride,” said Takehiko Yamamoto, international security professor at Japan’s Waseda University. “I cannot, for now, see there being any compromises.”

Simmering tensions heated up with Japan’s September 2012 purchase of some of the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku islands, in the East China Sea, from their private Japanese owners. China, which calls them the Diaoyus, regards them as its territory.

Since then, China has sent ships and aircraft into the area on scores of occasions, prompting counter-deployments by Japan, and last month Beijing declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering a large stretch of the East China Sea.

Japan already has an ADIZ, which now overlaps China’s. In October, a Chinese drone flight prompted Japanese threats to shoot down unmanned aircraft that enter its airspace, something Beijing said would amount to “an act of war”.

Each escalation is blamed on the other side, with Japan claiming China is trying to “forcefully change the status quo”, and China saying it must stand up to a re-emerging militarism it sees in Japan under conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe’s bid to stoke Japan’s slumbering economy has given him political capital to push his long-cherished aim of also rehabilitating Japan’s military, which under the post-war pacifist constitution is restricted to defense only.

Abe has used the tense diplomatic situation “cleverly” to manage his government, said Tomoaki Iwai of Nihon University, painting each Chinese action as a crisis and promoting policies that might otherwise be unpopular among a populace deeply wedded to peace.

“Mr Abe has not directly provoked China. He has been waiting for the other side to give,” Iwai said.

Fears about China have opened the door for Abe to boost Japan’s defense budget for the first time in 11 years—albeit by a small fraction of the double-digit rises enjoyed by China’s armed forces over the past decade.

Abe has also established a US-style National Security Council, which came into operation Wednesday and is expected to bolster the power of the premier and a handful of senior ministers. China plans a similar body, although details remain scant.

Beijing’s declaration of its own air defense zone was largely a response to the way it thinks Japan has “exaggerated the threat of China”, said Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

China’s ruling Communist Party regularly seeks to bolster public support by tapping into deep-seated resentment of Japan for its brutal invasion of the country in the 1930s.

The island sovereignty row is portrayed in China as righting a historical injustice.

Beijing says the islands—believed to harbor vast natural resources below their seabed—were its possessions for hundreds of years before Japan stole them at the close of the 19th century.

Japan’s nationalisation move was greeted by sometimes-violent protests on Chinese streets, a consumer boycott of Japanese goods, and an outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment which refuses to fade.

“Little Japan is a mean and shameless country,” wrote one user on a Twitter-style weibo site on Thursday. “Die little Japan,” added another.

These hardened attitudes sometimes play into Beijing’s actions.

Its relatively benign response to initial overflights of the ADIZ by Japan and the US—China said it had “monitored” the incursions—was lambasted by the domestic media and online.

When Japan next flew planes over the area, China sent up fighter jets.

Jin at Renmin University said China, which has blown past once-mighty Japan to become the world’s number-two economy, is proving a point with the new defense zone: it is a force to be reckoned with.

“Now China is really confident about itself,” he said.

A conventional solution for taking the heat out of a geopolitical squabble—one that Biden alluded to while visiting Tokyo this week—is to establish a hotline, like the one that links Beijing and Washington.

But frayed relations mean even talking about such a crisis-management tool is off the table for now.

“The Abe administration will never back down. Neither will China,” said Yamamoto of Waseda University. “There is no scope for optimism in the immediate future.”

(c) 2013 AFP

Author Infomation

Hiroshi Hiyama
Hiroshi Hiyama
  • 1


    Cross fingers nothing will happen. Biden pretend he try to hold China from making mistake is like holding Alligator by his tail.

  • -2


    "This is a battle about pride"

    Thats exactly what it is; nothing more or less. Stupidity,and I dont think anybody in the U.S. will be willing to die for it either.

    Excellent article Mr. Hiyama.

  • 1


    “Little Japan is a mean and shameless country,” wrote one user on a Twitter-style weibo site on Thursday. “Die little Japan,” added another.

    These hardened attitudes sometimes play into Beijing’s actions.

    But we don't really know who actually posted the messages. Ergo, it's not within the scope of journalism to report such white noise. Please stick to known facts and don't give anonymous bloggers space in your articles, Mr. Hiyama.

  • -1


    Agree on an independent, international panel of region-specific historical experts (by "agree" I mean China & Japan would both accept the panel's creation and eventual decision) and have them reach a unanimous decision. Only then will this farce end.

  • -1


    hmm - - so now Japan stole the islands? " before Japan stole them at the close of the 19th century"

    but what about " record in August 1617 of Ming Shilu, the annals of Ming dynasty emperors, shows that China did not control the Senkaku Islands. According to the record, the head of the Chinese coast guard[49] mentioned the names of islands, including one on the eastern edge of the Dongyin, Lienchiang, about 40 kilometers off the Chinese mainland, that was controlled by the Ming[50] and said the ocean beyond the islands was free for China and any other nation to navigate.[" wikepedia 6 dec 2013

  • -1


    I go to China once or twice a year on business (granted, I'm only in big cities, mainly Shanghai), but I have yet to meet a Chinese with the "hardened attitude". Last month, at karaoke in Shanghai, they wanted me to teach the latest AKB48 song, which I couldn't because I'm not a fan. However, JAPAN IS DOOMED. Things would be really different if we had democracy. Japan does NOT have democracy because of vote disparity of amost 1 country vote equivalent to 5 city votes, the conservative country farmers (OK, country bumpkins) rule the country with leaders from political families who pass seats in the Diet from father to son. The politicians will not re-apportion the diet seats because most of them will loose their jobs, and they don't have any skills for real jobs. If city people were represented, there would be none of this hawkish attitude and Japan would be peaceful. That stupid Ishihara, former mayor of Tokyo, was elected as a protest against LDP. He was pushed out, and don't be naive to think otherwise. LDP would disappear if we really had democracy in Japan.

  • 2


    Well, if there is "no end in sight," obviously what they are doing is unsuccessful.

    Beefing up the military.

    Pushing Japan back to its 1930's imperialism.

    Both sides hollering at the other and brandishing weapons.

    Since this isn't working, maybe it's time to change tactics.

    How about sitting down calmly and negotiating.

    Isn't that what politicians and diplomats are supposed to do?

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