During the recent US-China summit, one of the few issues on which Chinese tempers flared was that of a small group of rocks in the East China Sea – islands that the Japanese call the “Senkaku” and the Chinese call “Diaoyutai”. Unless handled more judiciously by leaders in both Beijing and Tokyo, there is real potential for a rupture in relations over the ownership of these barren islands.
Behind the scenes, all the key players in the rest of Asia and the US are urging Japan and China to handle the matter carefully, to let cooler heads prevail and change the subject. Still, the situation remains serious – if little understood. It has the potential to create a crisis that could rock northeast Asia, and have an impact on the global economy.
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For instance, recent economic analysis suggests that the boycott and financial retribution resulting from the tensions around these islands are now greater than the economic trauma that has followed in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan that struck Fukushima prefecture in March 2011.
Over the course of the past few months, Japanese coast guard vessels, backed by elements of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, have operated at a very high tempo around the islands to prevent what in their view would be an unauthorised landing by either nationalist fishermen or angry demonstrators.
A corresponding group of Chinese fishing vessels, backed by Beijing, has staged thrusts and feints towards the islands, challenging Japan’s administrative control and testing Japanese responses and tolerance for risk. While there are obvious historical tensions and competitive power dynamics at work currently in the deteriorating relationship between Japan and China, it is over the islands that the circumstances are most fraught.
Why such concern? There are a number of reasons why these circumstances are worrying.
First, there is a feel of 1914 in the air. Just as with tensions between European armies at the turn of the last century, both Tokyo and Beijing are absolutely certain of the rightness of their positions. More importantly, both believe that with a little further pressure, the other side is on the verge of blinking and backing down. This has led to both sides taking operational risks that could easily escalate.
Second, both sides underestimate the risks of a crisis and believe that the situation can be “managed” indefinitely. However, the constant everyday deployments by small numbers of commanders operating with little sleep and much pressure, combined with the inherent tensions of close-quarter interactions risks miscalculation and inadvertence.
Third, the operational manoeuvring on both sides has, in a sense, “imprinted” a certain mindset on the new Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, and his team. There has been a hardening of attitudes and mistrust that characterises the relationship.
Fourth, American counsel has had only limited effect on the conduct of both sides. Behind the scenes, Washington has made clear that its security ties animate its approach to a prospective crisis, but that the US seeks to avoid such a showdown through creative diplomacy and a greater recognition that everyone has bigger fish to fry in Asia.
While the US does not take an ultimate position on sovereignty, there is strong recognition that serviceable relations between Japan and China are a foundational piece of the modern Asian miracle. Without it, the region will lurch into an uneasy and tension-filled future.
Alas, these sentiments tend to animate Washington and the neighbours more than they do the policy makers and strategists in Japan and China. As it stands, both Tokyo and Beijing are determined to seek advantages in their island manoeuvres, play to nationalist domestic sentiments and avoid any appearance of backing down.
The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and former assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs