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Disputed Islands and Clashing Powers: Explaining Sino-Japanese Tensions

A dangerous confrontation in the region 

Ties between China and Japan remain tense after having deteriorated over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea, originated by Beijing’s more assertive presence in the region. Since August reported incidents and frictions close to Japan-controlled Senkaku (called Diaoyu by the Chinese) islands have returned to the forefront of the confrontation between the two countries.

On August 19, People’s Liberation Army Navy carried out confrontation drills in the Sea of Japan as part of the annual training arrangements as stressed by Commander Xu Haihua. China has intensified its military presence and the monitoring of the Air Defence Identification Zone unilaterally established in 2013, which Japan and the United States do not recognize.

While Beijing remains determined in trying to expand its power-projection capabilities over the contested islands, Japan has strongly condemned any attempt to alter the status quo unilaterally, calling for an end to the long-standing intrusions carried by Beijing.

Japan’s Air Defence Forces (ASDF) have reported a large number of provocative raids carried out by Chinese Jets in the surrounding waters controlled by Japan. Over the years, Abe Administration’s resoluteness to impose the effective control over the contested islands has exacerbated the level of confrontation in the region, challenging Beijing’s determination to assert its authority over the islands.

Despite both Ministers of Foreign affairs have called for a peaceful resolution of the maritime dispute, on the sidelines of the trilateral meeting that took place in Tokyo on August 24, the chance of a dreadful escalation originated by a miscalculation could seriously ignite an open confrontation in the region.

China’s relations with its neighboring countries have significantly deteriorated over the last years. Many nations continue to perceive its restless advance as a critical threat to their sovereignty while the region’s arms race has reached an unprecedented peak. The PLA’s growing activities in the East China Sea have led to an additional increase of 2.3% of Japan’s defence budget that is expected to reach 5.17 trillion yen by April 2017.

Japan is also planning to boost its presence in the South China Sea, joining Washington-led strategic initiatives while supporting countries like the Philippines and Vietnam in deterring the PLA raids in contested waters.

While Japan and China are still wary of each other, Washington remains committed to the protection of Japan’s territories, including the Senkaku Islands as stressed by the Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Therefore any unilateral attempt to undermine Japan’s sovereignty will be strongly opposed.

Under the Obama Administration, the United States have actively pursued a more dynamic role in the region, recalibrating the fulcrum of their own strategic interest in reinforcing their role as a Pacific power, fostering peaceful relations while advocating the respect of the freedom of seas and the rule of law.

Japan and the United States are the strongest status-quo powers in the region and their ability to respond effectively to the economic and strategic challenges originated by China’s emergence will be not only the most critical test for their alliance but also a valuable tool to mark the boundaries of their engagement.

Clashing powers and regional balance

Due to their special nature, relations between China and Japan have attracted the interest of many analysts for a long time. Historically, Japan has maintained an independent identity and role within China’s cultural sphere of influence, opposing its incorporation to the Sinocentric order.

During the years of the golden isolation and prior the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships, Japan manifested no interest in being part of the international system. In the modern era, Japan experienced a marked change during the Meiji Restoration, forging a new political identity characterized by political, economic and military borrowing from Western countries that bolstered the emergence of Japan as a regional power.

Nowadays, political identity and historical memories have undoubtedly affected the level of tensions between the two countries. The recent confrontation over the disputed islands is the last episode of longstanding diplomatic frictions. In addition, Tokyo’s appointment of the new Defence Minister Tomomi Inada, known for her revisionist views on Japan’s wartime era and the recent release of the new Defence White Paper, emphasizing the role of China as a major source of threat and regional destabilisation, have fuelled the level of tensions between the two countries.

Japan’s perception of the growing threat, represented by China’s maritime expansion, is the most evident source of concern for the Japanese leadership. Under Abe Administration, Japan has made substantial progress in the recalibration of its strategic posture, either within the scope of Washington’s Asia Pivot or in the pursuit of a more dynamic and independent foreign policy agenda under the framework of Proactive Contribution to Peace.

Japan’s foreign policy orientation remains currently tied to Washington’s regional strategic agenda, yet under Abe Administration, significant progress as regards defence and foreign policy have been successfully achieved, forwarding a marked transformation of the future role of Japan within the society.

Japan’s political elites are currently pushing a wider Constitutional reform in order to allow the country to alter its defence posture vis-à-vis the emerging threats represented by China’s Manifest Destiny and the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions, but also to complete the process of normalization, a fundamental step to emerge as a regional power.

Much ink has been spilt over the issue of China’s rise. Beijing has not simply a traditional hegemonic vocation, characterized by the final goal of replacing Washington in the region but it sees itself as an empire without borders. In the last two decades, CCP has nearly mended its legacy with the great tradition of Confucian statecraft that has risen again from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution.

Indeed, Beijing has resorted on a political vision based on Sinocentrism and the immutable mandate of China to restore its power, extending its political and cultural influence far away beyond its borders, challenging the regional security architecture, while reshaping rules and institutions of existing international order.

CCP political legitimation and moral authority resided in its ability to fulfil these goals, pushing Beijing towards the achievement of ambitious and risky objectives. China’s efforts to firmly reject any attempt to contain China’s economic, military and political power have originated a large number of frictions with its neighbouring countries.

Japan is determined to take any measure to assert its core interest and protect its reputation within the boundaries of the international law. Nevertheless, Japan has pledged its commitment to supporting Washington in upholding the rule of law, the freedom of navigation and overflight, currently jeopardized by China’s strategic prominence.

Beijing’s assertiveness in the region has undoubtedly reached a new peak characterized by the restless expansion of its strategic facilities and the militarization of a large number of islands in the South China Sea. Chinese leadership’s foreign policy vision remains adamant in not recognizing any multilateral authority or third-party ruling in solving territorial disputes as shown by Beijing’s response to the result of the recent arbitration of the South China Sea.

For instance, since April China has been expanding its military infrastructures built on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands reinforcing the perception of the imminent threat represented by Beijing’s presence in the region. On the other hand, the revamping of maritime tensions follows the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Beijing has strongly rejected the decision of the Hague-based Court, considered an additional attempt to undermine China’s natural claims in the region, relying on military provocations and mobilisation to intimidate South China Sea contenders and reassert its determination to protect its core interest at any cost.

While a large number of ASEAN nations have no means to oppose the rising presence of PLAN in the region, Japan’s determination to acquire a wider recognition as a regional security provider and critical strategic partner, under the auspices of Washington for the ASEAN nations could potentially jeopardise Beijing’s ambition to fulfil the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation, an ideological foundation of a Beijing-oriented regional order.

In the last months, the regional increasing tensions caused by Beijing’s unveiling the Great Wall of Sands strategy in the South China Sea has questioned again China’s peaceful rise doctrine.Abe Administration has indeed managed to seize the momentum to strengthen its influence within the ASEAN nations, building a partnership with Philippines and Vietnam while bolstering strategic partnerships with Australia and India.

Despite attempts from both sides to reduce the level of diplomatic frictions as shown by the recent meeting between Premier Li Keqiang and the special envoy Shotaro Yachi, calling for a mutual commitment, the path of reconciliation remains fraught with obstacles.

Yet, territorial disputes are not the main source of frictions in the Sino-Japanese relations, the reorientation of Japan’s foreign policy and defence agenda and the significant geopolitical shifts that have strongly affected the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region have indeed undermined the fragile stability, putting both countries at loggerheads.

In the last decade, the marked rise of China as economic, military and diplomatic power has significantly redefined the contours of regional balance characterized by a manifest transition of geopolitical power.

The emergence in Japan of a new political vision, departing from the notable reluctant engagement that has characterised Japan’s foreign policy for nearly six decades, has been strongly championed by Abe Administration, adamant in defining a new and more assertive role for the country.

Yet, Japan’s society remains divided over the controversial issue of Japan’s Constitutional reform. The narrative over Japan’s re-emergence as a revisionist power in the region and the memories of the atrocities of the Imperial Army in the region are still strongly advocated by the CCP in the futile attempt to prevent Japan to foster new alliances and strategic partnerships in the region.

On the other hand, the rapid increase of the sense of insecurity caused either by China’s quest for hegemony and its desire to reshape the structure of the international system have, coupled with the belligerent behaviour of the DPRK, offered an important opportunity for Washington to consolidate its strategic ties with a wide range of Asian countries such as Japan, whose strategic importance is incomparable.

Japan and China remain two critical pillars of a different concept of international order and both aim to the fulfilment of agenda’s priorities and strategic scopes in the region. China has a strong interest in perusing a wider reshape of the regional architecture at the expenses of prior regional architecture and the expansion of the strategic role of Japan is strongly rejected by its political elites, that maintain a marked mistrust toward the former enemy, increasingly aligned to Washington’s strategic priorities for the region.

On the other hand, Japan’s political elites could respond harshly to any alternation of the above-mentioned status-quo. The evolution of Japan’s foreign policy has shown a certain degree of ability to adapt to radical changes in the regional scenario, encouraging Japan’s political elites to display opportunism and pragmatism in the pursuit of power.

A new strategic agenda characterised by a marked interventionism would certainly allow Japan to restore and recalibrate its strategic initiatives and presence in the region while emerging as a critical actor within the boundaries determined by its proactive engagement.



Daniele Ermito
Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito

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