China’s confrontation with Japan over the control of islands in the East China Sea will jeopardize its dream of becoming the world’s leading economic power.
It is feared that the tug of war between China and Japan over the control of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea can escalate into a full-scale war. The controversy started when Beijing claimed its sovereignty over the island. Japan, which calls the same islands Senkakus, responded by rejecting the Chinese claim, making it clear that it ruled the islands in the past. Taiwan also claims the ownership of the islands, which it calls the Diaoyutia Islands.
What is the nature of conflict between China and Japan? More importantly, if it is not managed, what will be the implications of a possible Sino-Japanese standoff?
The root cause of the Sino-Japanese conflict on the disputed islands in the East China Sea is the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone (AIDZ) by China, which covers an area of more than 600 miles from north to south, above international waters. The implementation of AIDZ stipulates that all aircraft entering the zone must notify the Chinese authorities beforehand or face “emergency defensive measures.” China has not clearly stated what such emergency defensive measures would be.
Beijing’s decision to establish AIDZ over the Diaoyu Islands has two major objectives. First, to prevent the military presence of Japan or any other country on the islands; second, to exploit their natural resources. Predictably, China’s decision to enforce AIDZ was severely criticized by the United States and Japan. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to announce that the United States and Japan would work together to prevent any attempt by China to change the status quo in the Asia Pacific region. Biden also asked Beijing to revise its decision while a White House spokesman termed the Chinese announcement as “a provocative attempt to unilaterally change the status quo that increased the risk of inadvertent confrontation.”
There are four major realities which need to be considered while analyzing the Sino-Japan row. First, since the end of the Second World War, there exists a U.S.-Japan defense treaty under which Washington is bound to help Tokyo in times of crisis. China also knows very well that it has its limitations as it attempts to strengthen its control over the Diaoyu Islands. The United States has refused to recognize AIDZ. In order to deter the Chinese, it sent B-52 bombers to the zone without informing China about them. Predictably, China is not in a position to confront the United States for any violation of AIDZ.
Second, China’s territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas are well known. Almost all the countries of the region, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines and Japan, are wary of Beijing’s intentions in the Asia Pacific region. But China seems to be firm over the implementation of AIDZ as it claims that the zone will promote peace and cooperation. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman even argued that China is not responsible for the crisis and blamed some other countries for “playing on the issue for their selfish gains.” The spokesperson said, “We urge Japan not to look down on the Chinese government’s determination and resolve in defending China’s territorial sovereignty.”
China may be able to get away with AIDZ but its attempts to consolidate its influence in South and East China Seas will deepen mistrust and hostility among regional countries. However, the patrolling of Chinese naval ships around the Diaoyu Islands may deter Japan from taking any offensive measure against what it calls “Beijing’s aggressive and militaristic designs in East China Sea.”
Third, since the end of the WWII, Japan has tried to project itself as a peaceful nation having no militaristic
or aggressive designs in the region. Japan also lost the Kurile Islands to the Soviet Union which occupied them after the Second World War. But it will be unrealistic to expect Japan not to react against what it sees as China’s territorial ambitions over the islands which remained under Japan’s control till 2012 and are believed to be rich in mineral resources.
During Biden’s visit to Japan this year, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told the media that “China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone is an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo which can invite unexpected situations and is an extremely dangerous act.”
Japan fears that after the Diaoyu Islands, China will try to establish its influence over other islands located nearby, such as the islands of Amamioshima, Miyako and Ishigaki. The U.S.-Japan defense pact restrains Tokyo from maintaining an offensive military posture since the Japanese security is guaranteed by Washington. China, however, rejects the scope of this pact.
Finally, the absence of a regional organization in East Asia and North East Asia deprives the countries of the two regions of a conflict management and resolution mechanism that comes with the presence of regional organizations. For instance, the Association for South East Asian Nations ( ASEAN), the European Union (EU), the African Union ( AU) and the Organization of American States ( OAS) ensures a degree of regional approach to deal with conflicts. This is not the case in East Asia and North East Asia. The military presence of the United States in Japan and South Korea and its military engagement with Taiwan is another major factor which deepens the security predicament of the two regions.
The Sino-Japanese conflict is a major flashpoint in today’s global political scenario. Japan also carries a ‘historical baggage’ in Asia because of its past expansionist, aggressive and militaristic behavior. Its imperial thirst for land and resources became its official policy and Korea became the first victim of Japanese aggression when it was occupied by Japan in 1910. Japan’s military drive in Manchuria in 1931, attack on China in 1937 and its occupation of huge territories in South East Asia during the Second World War reflected its imperial policy to grab more and more land. The defeat of Japan in the Second World War and its occupation by the U.S. forces changed the geo-political landscape of Asia. As a defeated country, Japan was punished heavily and had to accept the deployment of U.S. forces on its soil.
China, Korea and other countries of South East Asia have not forgotten Japan’s atrocities and certainly will unite if Tokyo tries to pursue its expansionist ambitions. It is rightly said by many analysts that the past will continue to haunt Japan for many years. Even a slight act on Japan’s part which reflects its political ambitions in the region will be met with fierce resistance from its neighbors. But Japan’s historical baggage does not justify Chinese aggression and expansionist designs in East and South East Asia.
Prudence demands that a political solution is sought of the Diaoyu Islands controversy because despite the creation of AIDZ, China will not be able to achieve its enforcement, particularly by the United States. Furthermore, China’s confrontation with Japan and the United States over the issue of controlling islands located in the East China Sea will also jeopardize its dream of becoming the world’s leading economic power.