As the world listens for signs about the next steps in Syria, new flare-ups in old flashpoints in the Eastern Pacific are still causing problems between two of the world’s largest economies.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga publically announced on September 9 that Japan is seriously thinking about sending public officials to the disputed islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. The statement caught the attention of many observers, especially China.
Tokyo backtracked on the proposal by September 11, but the fact that the idea was even suggested shows just how much Japan is concerned about China’s intent and aggressive territorial claims in the region.
Although the island chain in question was returned to the Japanese government in 1972 by the United States, and Tokyo feels justified in protecting its interests, the Chinese will not appreciate the latest example of Japanese belligerent sovereignty.
From China’s point of view, the islands traditionally belonged to China and Japan has no right to claim ownership. The islands were only given to Japan because they were allied with the United States following World War II. At least this is the narrative in Beijing.
The islands have morphed into symbols of nationalism for both countries, with any violation by the other’s coast guard or military causing furore back home. China had hoped Japan’s nominal ownership of the island chain would not go beyond formal nationalisation and see construction of new buildings and official settlement of people.
But with the latest announced and then quickly withdrawn proposal, those hopes seem vain.
From Tokyo’s security perspective, the broiling events further south in the South China Sea - where the Chinese coast guard have moved swiftly to dominate other disputed islands - is a situation Japan cannot afford to experience in their own backyard.
If Japan had decided to go ahead with the plan to station public officials on the island chain – and the plan is not entirely off the table – then it would be an important evolution in the dispute for two reasons.
First, it would show that Japan is tired of making room for Chinese encroachment on what Japan considers its sovereign territory. Control of the islands directly reflects back on Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his plans for the nation.
Second, the move would never be made unless Japan felt its own military could cope with the eventual Chinese reaction. Beijing would not sit idly by and let Japan consolidate its hold on such a geostrategic position in the extremely busy sea lanes out of the South China Sea.
The situation around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is different to the Spratly Islands or the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, but only in the sense that the Chinese and Japanese navies are extraordinarily powerful neighbours, and highly militarised.
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China doesn’t yet consider the Philippines as a military threat, despite Manila’s close alliance with the United States, and it certainly is not worried about Vietnam. But the Japanese navy has leapt ahead in competency and capability over the past decade to be one of the strongest forces in the Pacific.
Chinese and Japanese ships are constantly steaming through the disputed island chain, trying to appear more powerful than the other and give their mutually exclusive claims to the windswept rocks greater legitimacy. And it’s not just ships manoeuvring through the islands. Following the rescinding of Japan’s proposal, a Chinese drone was spotted flying over the island chain.
The Japanese Air Self-Defence Force scrambled fighter jets to intercept the plane but the aircraft did not enter Japanese airspace, according to the Defence Ministry.
With all this movement the risk of patrol ships or aircraft colliding is increasing every month. Equally, the potential for miscalculation leading to clashes might send an otherwise easily managed situation spiralling out of control as a result of heightened tensions.
What is happening in East Asia is nationalistic belligerency at its most dangerous. The risk of clashes and collisions affect not just China and Japan, but most nations in the Asia Pacific region. Both Japan and China are entitled to stretch their military and political legs, but the question is: at what cost to international stability?