Should We Be Worried About China and Japan?

The two countries at it again, this time over three islands in the East China Sea. What is the world to think?
By: /
September 21, 2012

For the Japanese, they’re the Senkaku Islands. For the Chinese, they’re the Diaoyu Islands. Which country they actually belong to is at the centre of the latest clash between the two sides.

It’s been an open question for years, but the recent decision of the Japanese government to nationalize the islands has brought the point to a head.

Anti-Japanese protests have been organized in more than 100 Chinese cities, Japanese businesses operating in China have closed or scaled back operations, Japanese websites have come under cyber attack, and the U.S. ambassador to China’s car was pelted with small objects.

Things sound very tense indeed. The question is, should we be worried? After all, this is not the first time the two countries have butted heads. Indeed, this isn’t even the first time they’ve butted heads over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands. CIPS’s Scott Simon wrote about the long history of the issue earlier this year in a blog post titled “The Senkaku Islands: A Forgotten Flashpoint in the Western Pacific.”

But that, say many commentators, is exactly the problem. When relatively minor disputes keep boiling over, it points to deeper unresolved issues.

The Economistlays out the problem well. Yes, political transitions in both countries have exacerbated things this time around. Yes, this latest squabble will eventually die down. But long-term, the nationalism that fuels these disputes is only getting worse:

Growing nationalism in Asia, especially China, aggravates the threat … The islands matter, therefore, less because of fishing, oil or gas than as counters in the high-stakes game for Asia’s future. Every incident, however small, risks setting a precedent. Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines fear that if they make concessions, China will sense weakness and prepare the next demand. China fears that if it fails to press its case, America and others will conclude that they are free to scheme against it.

Professor Yinan He, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that nationalism is the real problem:

When an ancient feud is inflamed by new fears, overreactions occur. Not only are the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China the largest and vandalism the worst since the two countries normalized relations in 1972, but Chinese surveillance ships also entered Japan’s claimed territorial waters near the islands, hiking the danger of a military clash… But given Japanese public sentiment and oppositional pressure, backpedalling is hardly conceivable for Tokyo. Beijing’s hands are equally tied, as it faces the dilemma of either appearing soft-kneed if it suppresses mass protests too harshly, or suffering damage to China’s social stability and international image should the chaos drag on.

Beijing must feel particular flummoxed by that dilemma, considering that it had a direct hand in organizing those mass protests. Says Mark MacKinnon:

While China’s Communist Party government whipped up the anti-Japanese fervour through state-run media, and has facilitated the protests to date, there’s a sense the authorities are now worried the rage they created could get out of hand.

The fact that the two countries are so economically intertwined at this point doesn’t seem change what they think of each other. As Wenran Jiang writes in The Globe and Mail, political and cultural tensions can be quite independent of where you do business:

Intensified interactions between the world’s second- and third-largest economies have not translated into closer ties in other areas. While more than 70 per cent of Japanese and Chinese viewed each other favourably in the late 1970s, when the two countries signed a friendship treaty, the honeymoon is long over today, with some 80 per cent in both countries registering unfavourable feelings toward each other.

Most commentators agree that cooler heads must and very likely will prevail in this latest dispute over Senkaku/ Diaoyu. But solving the problem of xenophobic nationalism that allows these incidents to so balloon so quickly won’t be so easy.