from Asia Unbound

A Deep Chill or Heated Clash for Japan and China?

Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka (left) and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai meet in Beijing for the first Sino-Japanese summit on September 25, 1972 (Courtesy Jiji Press).

September 24, 2012

Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka (left) and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai meet in Beijing for the first Sino-Japanese summit on September 25, 1972 (Courtesy Jiji Press).
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Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda departed Tokyo today for the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, and Japan’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Chikao Kawai, departed for Beijing. At best, a chill lies ahead for the Japan-China relationship. At worst, a confrontation in the waters around the disputed islands in the East China Sea could propel the two Asian giants into a very dangerous scenario.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute will be high on the UN agenda. Washington and other regional powers should assist in finding a credible mechanism for peaceful dispute resolution before this crisis worsens.

Beijing has signaled its intent to confront Japan over its sovereignty claim to the Senkaku Islands. Over the weekend, China cancelled the ceremony long planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the Japan-China normalization, indicating Beijing’s displeasure with Tokyo’s decision to purchase the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

This diplomatic chill has also extended to private exchanges. China has postponed a series of exchanges, including the visit of the governor of Nagasaki—a longtime friend of China, a youth exchange between students from the disaster areas of Tohoku and  Szechuan, as well as high-level meetings between Japanese and Chinese business leaders.

Again this morning four Chinese state-owned ships patrolled the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, making this the seventh day of Chinese state patrols of Senkaku waters. Two vessels from the Marine Surveillance Agency and two from the Fisheries Agency were reported by the Japan Coast Guard. Last Friday, the Fisheries Agency initiated boarding inspections of fishing vessels, assumed to be Chinese, for the first time.

Japan continues to protest these incursions into Japanese territorial waters, but the Chinese government asserts that their actions are legal and that they intend to continue. To complicate matters further, the Chinese patrols will likely be joined shortly by a group of seventy fishing boats from Taiwan. Departing from Taiwanese ports today, these activists are aiming for greater access to fishing.

Northeast Asia is now facing the same complex maritime dispute as the South China Sea. Chinese assertion of its maritime claims against its neighbors in Southeast Asia is also carried out by Marine Surveillance Agency patrols, which more often than not are larger than regional coast guards. But equally devastating is the economic cost that an extended territorial dispute can bring for those who depend on Chinese tourists and consumers. There is no clear evidence yet on whether this current dispute will carry over to diminish commerce between Tokyo and Beijing.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei announced Beijing’s decision to cancel the anniversary celebration, placing the blame firmly on Tokyo. Yet Beijing has chosen a course of action that curtails diplomacy. The last time diplomatic tensions escalated to this degree was over the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, but even then in the midst of what came to be called the “deep freeze” in diplomatic relations, Beijing did not cancel the 30th anniversary ceremony.

Beijing is clearly readying for another protracted standoff with Tokyo, but unlike a decade ago, there are greater calls in Japan today to ready Japan’s defenses and prepare for the worst. As the Liberal Democratic Party presidential campaign continues, the speeches of virtually all candidates include reference to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the need to strengthen Japan’s ability to defend its sovereignty.

Emotions on both sides will continue to rise. Clearly, a bilateral accommodation is not likely to be forthcoming. U.S. officials have tried to cool tempers, but as of yet, there seems little sign of calm.

Japan and China both have a stake in the international institutions designed to mediate and support the peaceful resolution of disputes. This week’s UN meeting will for the first time in memory become the stage for serious confrontation between Asia’s two largest powers, offering the opportunity for multilateral encouragement and support for resolution rather than confrontation. Regional powers must join in supporting diplomacy as they too have a tremendous stake in avoiding a worsening of relations between Tokyo and Beijing.

As tensions continue the probability of a miscalculation or accident in the waters of the East China Sea will increase. Preventative diplomacy—by Washington, by other regional powers, and by the UN—is needed now.