China and Japan Dispute Over Islands Escalates

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East Asia has seen the dispute between China an Japan over a chain of islands escalate in the East China Sea and it has led some to wonder if hostilities are about to be exchanged. Called Diaoyo by the Chinese and Senkaku by the Japanese, the islands are uninhabited, but is supposed to have unexploited oil and natural gas resources.

The rivalry over the islands escalated last fall until the Japanese government purchased some of the islands from a private owner, but the Chinese government still insisted that it had sovereignty over them. In the newest twist in this dispute, it was revealed this week that a Chinese frigate targeted a Japanese ship with its weapons radar in January.

Complicating the situation is the ambiguity surrounding the events. The Chinese government was vague about its knowledge of the incident, but newly-inaugurated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a stern response, saying China’s actions were “dangerous.”

No shots were fired, but the incident mimics similar ones when George W. Bush and Barack Obama each entered office. In 2001, a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter collided, creating a brief diplomatic impasse. In 2009, China’s navy surrounded a U.S. surveillance ship in the South China Sea. Both incidents were defused relatively quickly, but speculation rose that China was simply testing the endurance of the new administrations.

The same phenomenon may be happening again. Prime Minister Abe is considered more nationalist and hawkish than his predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda. During the election, Abe made the disputed islands a part of his campaign saying that they were “Japan’s inherent territory” and that he would “stop the challenge from China.”

So, China has an interest in seeing how far the new prime minister will go. What is unknown, however, is the extent to which China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, knew about the incident.

Yoshiki Mine, a former Japanese diplomat, told the Financial Times:

“Today the two militaries are facing off directly. This is a very dangerous situation. . . . It is difficult to deal with because we can’t be sure who in China is making the decisions.” Tweet quote:

According to Linda Jakobson in The Diplomat, it is “not plausible . . . that Xi Jinping would have personally approved this particular lock-on radar action,” because even though”Xi presumably agreed to the task force’s plan of a step-by-step approach to increase pressure on Japan, a Chinese official I spoke to on January 10, 2013 said that Xi had not attended meetings of the ‘Office to Respond to the Diaoyo Crisis’ since becoming General Secretary of the CCP in mid-November.”

The radar targeting notwithstanding, the chance of actual hostilities still remains a remote possibility. The worry on all sides is that an aggressive pilot or careless sea captain could unwittingly start a war.

Article 9 of the Japanese post-war constitution prohibits acts of war, so any real hostilities and military action inevitably falls to the U.S, Japan’s military ally and a regional power, so Washington is unavoidably attached to what happens in the East China Sea.

In 2011, the Obama administration introduced a new strategy for the region called the Asia Pivot. Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton effectively left the dispute unresolved, so the onus is going to fall on the leaders of Japan and China to avoid conflict. With the U.S. planning to give Asia more attention as it gradually ends its wars in the Middle East, it continues to play referee in a match between anxious Asian powers.