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Forgotten Flash Point: East China Sea

FILE PHOTO – A group of disputed islands, Uotsuri island (top), Minamikojima (bottom) and Kitakojima, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China is seen in the East China Sea, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 2012. Mandatory credit. REUTERS/Kyodo/File Photo 

Beijing’s expanding military presence in the South China Sea (SCS) continues to attract the world’s attention. Tensions over the ownership of islands and the legitimacy for building artificial ones escalate, with some outsiders also joining the battlefield, including the U.S. and Japan. However, the dispute over SCS pales in comparison to the crises that happened in the East China Sea (ECS) around a decade ago, when a hot war between China and Japan seemed imminent. Today, the tension on the ECS has cooled down, but the dispute remains unsolved.

History of the Dispute on the ECS

The center of the dispute is the contested ownership of a group of islands – called Senkaku by the Japanese, Diaoyu Dao by the Chinese, and Diaoyutai by the Taiwanese (SDD) – extending to the water surrounding the islands, because the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gives countries the right to claim Exclusive Economic Zone 200 nautical miles beyond the coastline.

The dispute occurred after the Second World War.  Under unconditional surrender, Japan needed to return all occupied territories taken from other countries. However, the Japanese government contended that it did not take SDD from the Chinese since it is unmanned. On the Chinese side, both Beijing (People’s Republic of China) and Taipei (Republic of China) claim that SDD should be returned to China after Japan was defeated. Both governments regard themselves as the legitimate government of China, although Beijing is internationally recognized.

The peak of the dispute was reached around a decade ago and started with a purposed breakthrough. In 2008, both China and Japan signed an agreement on joint development of the ECS’s natural resources. However, the cooperation ended following critiques of the Chinese government for betraying national sovereignty.[i] The atmosphere over the ECS then became increasingly dangerous. The first crisis occurred in September 2010 when Japanese coast guards detained the crew of a Chinese fishing boat near SDD.[ii] Beijing fiercely protested this action and arrested four Japanese in Hebei Province, accusing them of trespassing in a military installation.  In late September, though Japan released all detained Chinese prisoners, neither side became softer on the dispute. The crisis reached a second peak in 2012 when the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, decided to nationalize SDD from the private owner. Beijing and Taipei protested fiercely against the proposal.  In July, Japan recalled its ambassador in China.  On August 15, the victory over Japan day, people from mainland China, Hongkong, and Macao boarded a Hongkong boat to land SDD and were detained by the Japanese coasts guard. 2 days later, Japan deported those who boarded SDD.  Following these events, both China and Japan (with the U.S.) launched military exercises on the ECS, further worsening the situation.[iii]

Since then, the tensions over the ECS have gradually cooled down but some conflicts continue to occur. In 2013, Beijing declared the East China Sea (ADIZ) where all planes need to report to the Chinese authority, overlapping with the ADIZ claimed by Japan. In mid-2014, a Japan Self-Defense Force surveillance plane entered the overlapped ADIZ and Chinese fighter jets intercepted it. While military conflicts have virtually disappeared, some other small friction remains. For example, in this March, Chinese Foreign Ministry complained about some controversial clauses regarding SDD in a proposed Japanese history textbook.

Incentives Behind Assertiveness

A common reason for all involving governments to be assertive to varying degrees is the rise of nationalism. For example, in China, the Communist Party shifted its focus from the communist ideology to the economy and nationalism after crashing demonstrating students in 1989. The government launched the Patriotic Education Campaign, which aims at raising public awareness of “the century of humiliation” when China was bullied and invaded by foreign countries. The primary target is Japan, which invaded China in 1931 and occupied a huge portion of the nation until 1945. As expected, the campaign greatly raised anti-Japanese sentiment in China. For instance, in 2005, Japan’s petition for a permanent membership in United Nations Security Council joined with the controversial clauses in history textbooks triggered protests across China. Also, from 2008 -2012, anti-Japanese demonstrations spread throughout the country.

In Japan, public attitudes toward the disputes with China are mixed, but nationalism is more active with government backs those movements. Defeated in WW2, many Japanese views the punishment on Japan as “victor’s justice” and the current Abe administration is trying to make Japan a normal country again. (Under the Peace Constitution, Japan now can only engage in defensive wars.) The most controversial events are the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese prime ministers. The Yasukuni Shrine became a disputed place since it enshrines some war criminals during WW2 who were accused and executed by the international court. Every time when Japanese politicians visit the shrine, Beijing and Seoul protest intensively. Japanese nationalists view critiques made by the Chinese and Koreans as insults to their national heroes, so they also protest against the Chinese and Koreans.

For Taiwan, the nationalist movement does exist but seems to be less active than in the other two countries. Taiwan, officially called The Republic of China, also claimed SDD and its surrounding waters. However, the government and people are less interested in such dispute as Taiwan has enjoyed a good relationship with Japan since WW2. Although Japan colonized Taiwan for more than half a decade and its brutal colonial rule still has some negative effects, many people prefer to the colonial period as they hate Kuomintang’s autocracy more. Additionally, both Japan and Taiwan were supported by the U.S. to counter the expansion of Communism. Still, nationalist movements have gained certain support from the government and the public. For example, in September 2012, Taiwan deployed 8 Coastal Guard ships near SDD, which were later dispelled by the Japanese.[iv]

The Road to Cooling Down

In August 2012, President of ROC, Ma Ying-jeou announced the East China Sea Peace Initiative, calling for a peace settlement of the ECS dispute and more cooperation. Beijing has not responded to this initiative so far. However, Japan eagerly responded to it and signed an agreement with Taipei about fishing in the ECS in 2013.

Also, the overheating of nationalism triggered deep concerns by Beijing. Although Beijing uses nationalism as a pillar of its legitimacy, it fears to be criticized as not nationalistic enough. During the crises in 2010 and 2012, protests across China were accompanied by numerous reports of riots, including attacks on Japanese companies, factories, Japanese brand cars, and their owners. Such violence challenged the government as it faced the dilemma of whether or not to support these so-called “patriotic” troublemakers. The government chose to crack down them because it not only wanted to continue the negotiation with Japan but also to try to protect its international image and keep foreigners and their investments in China.

Another essential factor that contributed to peace would be the limitation of natural resources under the ECS. In the very beginning of the dispute, Japan claimed that China (both mainland and Taiwan) raised the dispute over SDD only after the discovery of natural gas and some other resources under it. However, it turned out that the gas field is not so promising. For Beijing, the quantity of gas reserves there is not that big, only about 24 billion cubic meters. (Annual consumption of natural gas in China is around 200 billion cubic meters.) Japan also does not count on the gas field under the ECS. In addition to the concern over limited reserve volumes, the far distance between the field and Japan’s mainland made the cost to transport gas incredibly high.

Security is another concern for all three participants, as all parties prefer stability in the region. Japan, since WWII, has been the de facto controller of SDD, which is under the coverage of the U.S-Japan defense treaty. (Although the U.S. claims that it does not support any particular country over the dispute, it will protect every territory under Japan’s administration (including SDD).)[vi] If China attacks SDD, the U.S. will need to defend Japan and a new World War may become reality. Besides, the ECS dispute is only one of several flashpoints: the others include the Taiwan Strait, North Korea, and the South China Sea. All three issues involve China and the U.S. and are related to each other. The escalation of any tensions regarding these issues may trigger chain effects, bringing East Asia and even the world into dangers.

To maintain the stability in East Asia, disputing countries use diplomacy to ease the tensions. One remarkable achievement is the resuming of High-level Consultations on Maritime Affairs between China and Japan in September 2014. (The latest one was hosted this April.) Although they did not solve the territorial dispute, the two sides decided to cooperate on other issues such as fighting against smuggling, human trafficking, piracy, and protecting the environment.

The Way Out

So far, the tension of the ECS has cooled down. Also, cooperation and negotiations continue to make progress. However, the cooperation is mostly bilateral: either between Taipei and Tokyo or Beijing and Tokyo. Besides, another event like detaining Chinese citizens by Japanese authorities near SDD may again obstruct the cooperation on the ECS and even escalate to a diplomatic or even military crisis. Thus, all sides should try to have a trilateral conference at least about some innocuous topics and establish a well-functioning communication mechanism to prevent the escalation of any potential crisis. In addition, all parties, especially China and Japan, should closely monitor the nationalistic movement, which will definitely hinder future cooperation. The international community should also help to maintain the current status quo and do not stir troubles in the region. A stable East Asia would be the basis for solving the dispute on SDD in the future.

[i] Mark J. Valencia, The East China Sea Disputes: History, Status, and Ways Forward, Asian Perspective 38(2014), pp.191

[ii] Valencia, pp.194

[iii] Valencia, pp.195

[iv] Dennis V. Hickey, Taiwan and the Rising Tensions in the East China Sea, Asian Survey, Vol.54, Number 3, pp.504

[v] Paul O’ Shea, How Economic, Strategic, and Domestic Factors Shape Patterns of Conflict and Cooperation in the East China Sea Dispute, Asian Survey, Vol.55, Number 3, pp.555-556

[vi] Sheila A. Smith, Japan and the East China Sea Dispute, pp.4