Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.12.06

The Japan-China Feud in the East China Sea - A Better Scheme for Status-Quo Management?

This commentary was produced by The National Bureau of Asia Research (NBR) and originally was published on the NBR website. NBR retains all rights to this material in all languages. Copyright (c) The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).

Power Shift and the Crumbling of the Status Quo

In retrospect, the year 2010 should be remembered as the historical turning point of relations between Japan and China. This turning point has made long-standing management of the bilateral status quo increasingly obsolete. In 2010, China surpassed Japan's nominal GDP and became the world's second-largest economy. The shift of relative-power superiority from Japan to China would for the first time since the early twentieth century create a bilateral relationship where China's GDP and military expenditure are constantly larger than those of Japan, and this gap is rapidly widening. As Japanese anxiety grows about China's military modernization, the Chinese leadership's strategic intentions, and the potential for tensions to escalate, these concerns have in turn fueled a bitter domestic debate in Japan about its national security strategy. China's ascendancy and growing assertiveness, as well as Japan's fear of the rapid power shift, have caused bilateral norms and understandings generated in the 1970s to begin crumbling.

Coincidentally, since 2010, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and maritime authorities have visibly increased their activities in the East China Sea. Most symbolically, in April 2010 a flotilla of ten PLA Navy vessels transited the Miyako Strait in the southwest island chain and conducted antisubmarine exercises in the western Pacific. Then in September of that same year, a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard vessels off the Senkaku Islands, which caused a ten-day diplomatic standoff between Tokyo and Beijing over the detention of the Chinese captain. Since this incident, Japan's growing sense of vulnerability about these remote islands has provoked a domestic upsurge of support for securing the country's territorial sovereignty.

Two years after the fishing boat collision off the Senkaku Islands, the Yoshihiko Noda administration "nationalized" three out of five islands on September 11, 2012. Then foreign minister Koichiro Genba insisted that the objective was to minimize any adverse impacts on the Japan-China relationship, by preventing nationalist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara from buying and developing facilities on the islands. [1] For the purpose of maintaining the calm and stable management of the Senkaku Islands, in Genba's words, purchasing the islands was the "only viable and best option available to protect bilateral relations."

It is worth noting that behind the scenes officials from the both the Japanese and Chinese governments have tried to minimize the potential escalation of tensions. In August 2012, for example, Japanese officials held a series of intensive exchanges with their Chinese counterparts and seemed to believe that they had gained the understanding of the Chinese government, in line with Genba's logic for purchasing the Senkaku Islands. [2] The Jiji Press even reported that the Chinese government would reluctantly tolerate Japan's decision on the condition that Japan would pledge commitment to the "three no's," including that there be no landing, no investigating, and no constructing on and around the Senkaku Islands. [3]

However, this new modus operandi was conspicuously denied by the Chinese government. At their tête-à-tête talk during the Vladivostok APEC meeting in September 2012, President Hu Jintao decisively told Prime Minister Noda that "any attempt to buy the islands by Japan will be viewed as illegal and invalid." In spite of receiving a strong message of denial, Noda decided to purchase the islands a day after the bilateral exchange. He repeatedly emphasized that the nationalization was carried out "from the standpoint of continuing to maintain and manage the Senkaku Islands peacefully and stably." However, whereas Japan claimed that it had only consolidated the long-standing status of sovereignty, China interpreted this decision as a major violation of the status quo. [4]...