Even when compared with the physical gestures on display at APEC in September (see here), the above picture illustrates that top-tier relations between leaders in China and Japan have plummeted to new depths, driven in part by domestic concerns in both countries, rising nationalism, and what commentators refer to as a strategic shift in the region towards China.
On that note, why is China pushing Japan hard on this issue? There may be two reasons for this. One is that both the CCP and PLA have reached an agreement by which the state will use its growing military and diplomatic power to marginalise Japan at every opportunity, place pressure on Japan’s territorial claims and thwart Japan’s economic agreements and assistance programs with South-East Asian and African nations. In other words, reinforce the impression that Japan is no longer the main representative of Asia, that it is not capable of withstanding China, and that states in the Asia-Pacific and other developing regions should recognise China as their natural partner and ally and not the former “fascists” of Japan (this term has crept back into statements and speeches by representatives of the CCP and PLA, as a subtle reminder in case anyone has forgotten WWII).
The second reason may be more limited in scope, but its implications are more serious. The PLA may indeed be working on a policy of confrontation in order to push the CCP into accepting the need for greater levels of defence funding. To allow Japan to act unimpeded in waters that China regards as its own leaves the CCP looking weak when faced with Japanese “aggression”. If the PLA sustains the pressure on Japan’s maritime borders and territorial claims, the CCP benefits in being seen to stand up to Japan while the PLA (and related maritime security forces) get the budget they require (in that sense, former Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro gave China the excuse it was looking for to advocate its claim to the Senkaku Islands in a sort of triumph of short-sighted populism over long-term national interest).
The problem is, of course, than any unilateral action by the PLA at sea (or Japan Coast Guard, for that matter) would risk igniting a regional conflict, and given the absence of any forms of emergency communication between the leadership of both countries, even an accident could be misinterpreted as an act of hostility and lead to open conflict. Despite claims by both sides that they are acting in accordance with international law, and that they are exercising their right to claim the island group based on evidence of ownership dating back centuries (at least, this is what China claims. Japan does not believe an issue exists about the islands – they are Japanese, no more needs to be said (J), one gets the impression that neither side is keen to reach an early solution to the standoff (the Noda government's decision to pre-empt Ishihara and offer to purchase the islands was an attempt at a solution, although it merely played into Ishihara's hands and exacerbated the problem. It is interesting to note that since the islands are considered private property, what prevented previous Japanese governments from nationalising them when China's first claims to the Senkaku Islands emerged in 1972 and especially after Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty in the same year? The answer probably lies in the belief that China would never develop the capacity to challenge Japan's control of the islands. The Cold War was in full swing, China was a chaotic mess as a result of the Cultural Revolution, and Japan's economy was ticking along nicely (albeit slower than the previous 20 years). As the US was still involved in Vietnam, its military presented a significant barrier to the real threat in East Asia at the time- the Soviet Union, which had no interest in islands immediately south of Japan. Hence the complacency with which successive LDP governments treated the issue).
As an aside, how would things play out if one side conceded to the claims of the other? In the case of Japan, to recognise China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands would mean that other islands under dispute between Japan and its neighbours (Takeshima with South Korea, and three of the Kurile Islands with Russia) would become the focal point of pressure by those countries to force Japan to cede its claims. Domestically the DPJ would be vilified by the right-wing press for a lack of resolve, it would come under sustained attack from the LDP and Komeito (not to mention the Reform Party and whatever party Ishihara Shintaro manages to cobble together) in the Diet, and the lives of DPJ members would be placed at risk from far right wing groups (who are not averse to taking out their frustrations on individual politicians). Japan’s reliability as an ally would come under question by the US, for what would be the point of guaranteeing Japan’s territorial integrity if it were willing to throw it away as a result of pressure, not actual force but pressure, from China? At the next general election the DPJ would be swept out of power, possibly in perpetuity, for giving up Japan’s sovereignty in the face of foreign aggression.
This pent up anger at Japan’s acquiescence could then ferment popular dissent and lead to attacks on public figures identified as “traitors” to the state, thereby pressuring whatever party follows the DPJ to take a more confrontational stance on territorial issues. The public climate would then lead to more fervently nationalistic rhetoric among media commentators and writers, and bring about calls for active constitutional revision. Given the climate of “humiliation” and a desire for revenge against Japan’s neighbours for forcing it into a weaker position, public support for military spending and collective self-defence would rise, fuelling an arms race in East Asia. We would, in short, be facing a situation similar to that in the 1930s, although this time China, Japan, and the US would be facing off against one another in the East China Sea and the Pacific, with the US leaning in favour of Japan.
If China were to concede that Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands is legitimate and withdraw its own claim, domestic suppression of that fact could only last so long before it leaks out via social media, leading to mass protests in cities and towns across the country. Public anger in China would be directed towards the Japanese for their intransigence over the territorial issue (and past wrongs), and would also be directed at the CCP for surrendering China’s interests to outside pressure, not to mention the humiliation of doing so to Japan. This state of affairs might convince members of the PLA that the CCP is not capable of defending China’s interests, and so they would act unilaterally, possibly provoking an incident with either the US or Japan as a show of “resolve.” Such an act would place the CCP at odds with the military while at the same time confronting protests against its rule – a dangerous state of affairs for a one-party state and potentially destabilising for the country as a whole.
Given the inherent risks in making concessions, both sides have chosen to steadfastly insist on their position and have not yet shown any sign of compromise. This has had a detrimental effect on certain sections of the Japanese economy (namely the automobile trade), but has not escalated into calls for economic sanctions against China (indeed, trade talks have continued against a backdrop of political posturing over territory). As today marks the 10 year turnover of the CCP’s executive, once Xi Jinping has been installed as President/Chairman and attention is pulled away from the CCP’s internal power struggles, China may be more willing to discuss how to best resolve (or at least lessen) its dispute with Japan. It is by no means guaranteed, however given Xi Jinping’s “princeling” status and political influence, he appears more capable of discussing relations with Japan than either Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao. At any rate, the current state of affairs is merely making a tense situation worse, so the sooner both sides get talking the better.
*This post has been modified for greater clarity, and reflects to some degree arguments made by Stephen Harner here.