Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.11.08

China's Calculation on the Senkaku Islands as Seen Through the Report of Chinese Media

Many of the Chinese media reports and Internet postings regarding the Senkaku Islands are highly critical of Japan. Aside from their criticisms, they share a certain set of characteristics

First is the emphasis on China's military power. Photos of China's latest weapon systems accompany many of the reports. For example, they often include photos of fighters flying above snow-crested mountains and naval ships. China's first aircraft career "Liaoning," which had been purchased from Ukraine as "Varyag" and had been refurbished, entered service September 25. Since, then the images of its sizeable presence and training activities have been reported widely, which indicates the extent to which China is excited over its long-desired first aircraft carrier.

The media reports emphasize, along with depictions of military weapons, the capability and excellence of Chinese soldiers. They often are praised with such phrases as, "Chinese soldiers are not afraid to die," "They will bravely counter Japan's Self Defense Forces (JSDF)" and "China is confident about fighting Japan. JSDF is not a worthy opponent." (Global Times, et al.)

At the end of September, when China's navy frigates moved close to the Senkaku Islands, Mingpao News reported that the Japanese government "panicked" at the sight of Chinese naval frigates. The word "panic" exaggerates the major coverage by the Japanese media on the movements of the Chinese Navy and conveys the sense of a certain amount of narcissistic self-satisfaction.

The reports, however, are not all hot air. Some are relatively straight forward and attempt to compare the relative military strengths of Japan and China. reported that the Akizuki Class missile destroyers that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is planning to deploy have capabilities that are superior to those of China's equivalents, its 054A missile escort ships. Furthermore, the Global Times reported, though inaccurately, the remarks of Prime Minister Noda: "Japanese Prime Minister stated that, if the two countries clash militarily, China will pay higher price than Japan."

China's media and internet also demonstrate a strong interest about the possibility of United States military intervention based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and they often report on that.

Recently, there have been a few reports different from those noted above. They are of great interest.

First, Xinhua reports along the lines that, "Japan's media and experts are beginning to indicate that 'the dispute over the Diaoyu(Senkaku) Islands are going to be protracted.' And this is a correct view. Regarding the Diaoyu(Senkaku) Islands and South China Sea, the disputes over territorial borders and sovereignty will not be solved in the near future and their protracted status quo indicates that relevant parties will need to play a game of endurance. These disputes exist because protection of maritime interests is very complicated and they cannot be solved easily in a short period of time." When reporting on disputes with Japan, the Chinese media tend to report only those points that are advantageous to China. Applying this principle to this report, it appears that China itself believes that having a protracted dispute over the Senkaku Islands will be beneficial to it. Furthermore, it clearly states that those disputes cannot be solved in a short period of time, which suggests that China will not embark on starting use of force immediately.

Another example is the report of Phoenix Channel and of other Chinese media on China's reaction to Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada's October 21st speech in Wakayama. They reported that, "(he Okada stated that) there is no territorial issue concerning the Diaoyu Islands, but it is a fact that China is claiming sovereignty over them and it is necessary for the two nations to calm down the hot temperature through dialogue."

On October 22nd, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded to Mr. Okada's remark by repeating China's claim that the Senkaku Islands belong to China; however, he also responded to a reporter's question by stating, "China always maintains that both sides should resolve and manage the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands appropriately, through dialogue and negotiation." This comment appears to emphasize that China shares Deputy Prime Minister Okada's thinking with respect to dialogue.

Here, however, one needs to pay careful attention because Deputy Prime Minister Okada and China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson agree only on the need for dialogue while they disagree on other points. The Chinese side could have focused on these differences by responding pointedly to Deputy Prime Minister Okada's remark that "there is no territorial issue," but, instead, it focused on the common ground.

This response is probably because China prefers delay and resolving the dispute by dialogue. These reports underscore China's belief that protracted discussion of the issue and dialogue advantage China.

Why would this be advantageous to China? It is because Japan has stated, "there is no territorial issue," but if Japan is willing to solve the dispute by dialogue, then, in China's view that is progress.

By contrast, for Japan, solving the dispute by dialogue is disadvantageous. As there is no "issue," then there would be no need for dialogue.

Does this mean that Japan should continue to ignore the dispute? Not necessarily. The international community is watching with great interest how Japan and China will go about solving the issue. Most countries, including the Unites States, seem to be supportive of China's remark that the dispute should be solved by dialogue.

I suspect that China is fully aware that its territorial claim is not based on solid ground, but that its actions are driven by considering the reactions of third parties. This will be a long battle, which will include a public relations war, and it will not be easy for Japan. Instead of asserting that "there is no territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands," Japan must remain both flexible and persistent in its responses.