While ties between China and its neighbors have long been strained by territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing’s policy has typically been one of self-restraint coupled with patient diplomacy. But when the Japanese government announced the purchase of the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, from private citizens late last year, Beijing’s patience started to wane. Some analysts tried to downplay the nationalistic rhetoric coming from both sides, arguing the purchase was undertaken by the Japanese government to remove the islands from the potential control of the outspoken nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. Mr. Ishihara had gathered millions of dollars in donations with the intention to purchase and develop the islands on behalf of the metropolitan government. The analyst’s explanation didn’t go over too well with nationalistic Chinese citizens, who staged large-scale protests and demonstrations in dozens of cities, while mobs smashed Japanese cars and looted Japanese-owned stores. In an interview with Chinese media on December 29, Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the China Society of Military Science and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) made it clear that China’s so-called“self-restraint” might not last much longer.
The election of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last month has also weakened the analyst’s argument, as Beijing frets over a new, more powerful outspoken nationalist, Shinzo Abe. Abe has been called by the Economist “a hawk with distorted views of history”, has visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and paid respect to Japan’s war dead (and leading WWII war criminals). Abe has previously warned China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, saying Japan would not concede “one millimeter” of territory. Like his grandfather, the former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, he is a vocal advocate of rewriting Japan’s postwar pacifistic constitution.
How the Chinese have reacted to the election of Shinzo Abe is alarming. In a show of preemptive force, several surveillance ships have been sent into the waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu chain. China has now sent official ships into the islands’ waters over 20 times since Tokyo nationalized the chain in September.
Last week Beijing again upped the ante, transferring two destroyers and nine other ex-navy vessels to its maritime surveillance fleet, in an apparent attempt to prove to Japan and others its freedom of navigation in the disputed waters. According to reports, two of Beijing’s newly-refurbished vessels are destroyers, with one each to operate in the East and South China Seas, with the others including tugs, icebreakers and survey ships. The efforts to build China’s presence in the disputed waters will not likely end soon. Yu Zhirong of the government’s Research Centre for Chinese Marine Development recently wrote that “Chinese maritime surveillance authorities will build and buy many ships and planes in the future with strong capabilities and advanced equipment”.
Beijing’s increasing belligerence is not just limited to maritime vessels, as the last two months have seen Chinese aircraft flying over the disputed territories. Three days before Japan’s general election, a Chinese maritime surveillance airplane was spotted in the territorial air space of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands — causing Tokyo to scramble its fighter jets. The flight coincided with the 75th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, and was the first violation of Japan’s airspace by an official Chinese aircraft since 1958. Last week, Japan again scrambled its fighter jets to head off a Chinese state-owned plane that flew near the islands. And on Thursday, tensions heightened as Japan scrambled two F-15s following reports of several Chinese military aircraft crossing into its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). According to Japanese reports, the Chinese aircraft numbered more than 10, and included J-7 and J-10 fighter aircraft. China, in turn, responded by scrambling two J-10s of its own. Thursday marked the first time the two countries dispatched military aircraft against one another in the East China Sea.
How the new Japanese government will continue to respond to China’s growing display of power is troubling many. So far, Japan’s response has been largely constrained to the scrambling of its jets and the detainment of Chinese fishing vessels, which have strayed into Japanese territorial waters in order to offset depleted stocks closer to shore. However, on January 9, the Japanese defense ministry announced it was considering authorizing Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) aircraft to fire warning shots at Chinese planes that enter Japanese airspace.
Mr. Abe is clearly being tested and in a difficult position, needing to placate the nationalistic forces that drove him into office while avoiding any missteps which might cause further escalation. Given Japan’s colonial history and the war-making constraints of its Constitution, Abe cannot be viewed as the aggressor.
What Abe can do is to harness the fear and anxiety of China’s neighbors over a more assertive and powerful China. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have maritime disputes with China, which Beijing has sought to negotiate separately with each nation. Abe’s best choice is to build political dialogue and trust with Japan’s neighbors and seek to strengthen Japan’s political standing in the region. A politically stronger Japan could also perhaps stunt the growing nationalistic trend at home, which threatens both economic relationships and regional stability. Only with concerted effort among China’s neighbors will Beijing lose its illusion that it can successfully negotiate its territorial disputes on a bilateral basis.