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An Escalating Crisis: Why China and Japan Might Go to War

News & Features | February 4, 2013

The prospect of conflict between China and Japan is rising drastically over a set of small uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China. Diplomatic talks have stalled while nationalistic sentiments in both countries have grown louder over the seemingly insignificant islands. Both China and Japan are ramping up their military spending and the waters surrounding the islands are becoming increasingly militarized. With little prospect of a sustainable solution, the second and third largest economies in the world may well be sliding towards war.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands lie in a strategic location in the East China Sea, roughly halfway between Japan and China. The continental shelf surrounding the islands is rich in oil and natural gas. Japan currently owns the islands, but China disputes that claim, arguing that Japan illegitimately colonized them during its imperial past. In its defense, Japan states they “discovered” the islands in 1884. In addition, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) gives Japan sovereignty over the islands.

A series of recent political blunders on Japan’s part, however, redefined the question of sovereignty into a territorial dispute. In 2010, when a Chinese fishing trolley trespassed into the waters surrounding the islands, the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the captain of the Chinese ship and brought him into custody. In protest, China suspended rare earth mineral exports to Japan, which in turn took a severe toll on Japan’s economy.

The crisis deepened in September 2011, when Tokyo’s ultra-nationalist mayor attempted to purchase the islands himself to ensure Japanese control. Aware that such a move might be incendiary, the Japanese central government clumsily prevented the mayor from buying the islands, announcing its plan to “nationalize” them instead. The plan backfired, inviting the argument that Japan never had legitimate control over the islands in the first place. Moreover, China interpreted “nationalizing” as colonizing and loudly protested the move.

In the last few months, tensions have escalated, and both countries have become increasingly adamant about sovereignty over the islands. In over a hundred cities across China, thousands of protesters took to the streets, vandalizing Japanese restaurants, stores, and cars. The anxious Japanese public elected the conservative Shinzō Abe as their new Prime Minister based upon his hawkish promises to deter China. For the first time in more than a decade, Japan increased military spending by over 180 billion yen (roughly $2 billion) at the beginning of January. A week later, China sent surveillance vessels and patrol planes over the islands. Japan responded by scrambling fighter jets and threatening to respond with warning shots if China repeats the provocation.
This territorial dispute is particularly worrisome because, at this point, there is no diplomatic solution that will satisfy China, short of full control over the islands. Both countries are dealing with nationalist publics who urge for military answers to territorial disputes. The US has reaffirmed its commitment to defend Japan in case of Chinese aggression, which raises the possibility that the US might be drawn into a conflict if it occurs. Military conflict may appear inevitable for these two nations, but only time will tell if they can manage to find an alternate solution to appease their opponent’s aggression.