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Japan-China Standoff in the East China Sea: Why Diplomacy needs to Work

05.10.14

Japan-China Standoff in the East China Sea: Why Diplomacy needs to Work

05.10.14
Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 22, 2014.
Photo by Photo Moritz HagerShinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 22, 2014. Photo by Photo Moritz Hager

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement at Davos that the relationship between Japan and China is the same as that between Great Britain and Germany prior to the First World War has drawn a sharp response from world leaders.

Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 22, 2014. Photo by Moritz Hager

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 22, 2014. Photo by Moritz Hager

The political turmoil in the East China Sea between Japan and China has reached unprecedented heights to a level where leaders of both countries are not talking to each other. The situation is quite alarming considering the huge economic repercussions a conflict between the two countries could have on the world economy. The Japanese prime minister’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last year coupled with aggressive nationalist policies have worsened the situation. The recent air defense identification zone (ADIZ) declared by China over the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu Islands has caused the situation to deteriorate further as Japan considers these islands as part of Japan. Both the countries are playing a game of cat and mouse and testing each other’s capabilities and limits.

Japan fears China’s rise and its rapid military modernization in the region as a threat to its very existence. What Japan fears is that China might gain control of both the East China and South China Seas thereby holding Japan ransom and crippling its already struggling economy. Japan’s recent National Security Strategy clearly identifies China as the troublemaker in the region. In response to China’s military buildup, Japan has increased its defense budget to counter a perceived Chinese threat. The bulk of the defense budget will be spent on acquiring maritime surveillance units. Japan will spend around $250 billion USD over the next 5 years to keep Chinese forces in check. Concerns about China’s opaque decision-making process and its intentions in the region are troubling for Japan. China’s use of force and coercion to enforce its claims with blatant disregard for international law and order has propelled the Japanese government to have a look at its peace constitution, which enforces a ban on offensive military capabilities.

Even though China is on some level to blame for the escalating tensions in the region, Japan’s military overhaul is alarming and what some fear is Japan’s renewed path to militarism.

Deng Xiaoping’s statement that future generations will be wise enough to resolve the dispute is not reassuring. China’s rapid economic growth has surpassed Japan, making it the second largest economy of the world in a matter of just 30 years since reforms first began. Hence the conflict between the two nations is not just about the islands. It is about China obtaining its rightful place in the international world order. Japan has been the centre of economic growth and prosperity in the region since the end of World War II and does not wish to lose this status. The race is for who will lead Asia in the 21st Century. It’s a battle between nations with a violent past and this very history will define the future course of action of both the countries. The battle between the countries is also a personal battle between the current leaders as Abe’s Grandfather administered the Manchuria region during the Japanese -occupation and Xi Jinping’s father led the communist guerillas against Japan. Both Japan and China have never been great powers simultaneously but in 2014 it seems that China is poised to overtake Japan for supremacy in East Asia.

The United States role in this dispute is very peculiar and one to watch. Japan has been a model US ally since World War II and this relationship has stood the test of time. The US-China economic relationship has grown by leaps and bounds through the Cold War period where they collaborated for a brief period to bring down the erstwhile Soviet Union. US ignorance of the Asia-Pacific region along with US Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq allowed China to seize advantage and thrust itself onto the world stage and project itself as a rising superpower. Following the ADIZ declaration the United States condemned China for the unilateral action.

The US-Japan Peace Treaty covers the disputed islands in question and hence the common parlance is that United States will defend Japan in case of a conflict with China. However Japan is becoming increasingly concerned after 2012’s Scarborough incident that the US will do little in response if China were to capture the islands in a surprise attack.

Even the United States joined China and South Korea in condemning the Yasukuni Shrine visit and stated that such actions could have an adverse affect on regional peace and security.

The world will be watching very assiduously as the dispute between the two countries unfolds. New alliances and regional partnerships will be formed. Already China and Japan have started courting India, the other major power in Asia, and its support will be crucial to both states. Each side will play to their strength and the other’s weakness. Leaders of both countries have not maintained “official level” talks since the Yasukuni visit. They need to forget the past and move forward to resolve the dispute. As Deng Xiaoping said, the dispute should be set aside and joint development of resources in the area should be pursued. Japanese technology coupled with cheap Chinese labor in research and development of the potentially oil rich zone will be profitable for both. Both countries should consider world peace and security before taking any provocative action and should access their actions carefully.

The United States should act as a negotiator and help find a solution which is respectable and accepted by both countries. Japan should not pursue actions that will likely affect Chinese sentiments with regards to World War II and China should be more open about its policies and consult with its neighbors before taking any action which can be deemed provocative. China should go the extra mile to in order to pacify the world about its intentions. Containing China in the region will prove futile for both Japan and the United States without gradually working towards integrating China into the already established world order.

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