Peace Is the Only Answer in China-Japan Island Dispute

January 26, 2014

Zachary Fillingham

Island in in East China Sea

The East China Sea territorial dispute between China and Japan figured prominently in various geopolitical risk forecasts for 2014, and with good reason. Neither side shows any sign of standing down, and with every new military deployment near the contested area comes an increased risk of a small-scale military incident spiraling into war.

Anti-Japanese sentiment in China runs deep, fueled by memories of Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation during World War II. These feelings have been strengthened by the Chinese education system and state-controlled media, along with frequent examples over the years of half-hearted and waffling contrition on the part of the Japanese government. They have even been absorbed into the national narrative of China’s rise, such that China will only receive the official stamp of superpowerdom once Japan has been fully eclipsed in East Asia – politically, economically, and militarily.

As architect of China’s rise and self-professed redeemer of the Chinese nation, the Communist Party of China (CCP) needs to take these feelings into account. To neglect to do so would contradict the Party’s own carefully-crafted national mythology, and consequently erode the legitimacy of its one-party rule.

The dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku in Japanese) is one issue where the CCP is prisoner to its own logic; thus, we shouldn’t expect any dovish overtures from Beijing, especially so long as the Abe administration insists on rattling the cage.

Though the underlying motivations may differ, Japan appears just as intent on not backing down. The resurgent nationalist vein that helped propel Shinzo Abe into power maintains that Japan has apologized enough for its militarist past, and it should now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other major powers in international society as a “normal,” aka not abashedly pacifistic, democratic country.

Japanese politics seem to be at a crossroads, one with any number of disconcerting historical parallels (interwar Germany for one). After decades of deflationary economic malaise and ringing condemnations from its neighbours, a political force has arrived promising a reason for Japanese people to hold their heads high again. The elixir of Abenomics has already worked its magic on the economy – at least for the time being. Now all that remains is the question of Japan’s role in East Asia: Will it be a passive pole of US military power, or an assertive regional player that actively leans into China’s expanding capabilities?

This is a question that Prime Minister Abe would happily answer if given the chance, and with his oft-stated dream of amending Japan’s pacifist constitution and incendiary visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, it’s no great secret what form his answer would take. Whether or not the Japanese public will allow him to do so is another story. Although recent polls have shown a troubling anti-China trend (over 90% of the Japanese public have an “unfavorable” impression of China), Japan’s pacifist worldview is still largely intact, with 57% of the population opposing a government push to reinterpret Article 9, which would allow the Japanese military to participate in collective defense operations with the United States.

With both sides stubbornly insisting on the righteousness of their cause, the Diaoyu dispute stands as a serious problem with no easy solution. Both governments know that war would be economically disastrous, with annual two-way trade between China and Japan in excess of $340 billion, yet war remains a distinct possibility if the present course is maintained.

The U.S. Diplomatically Sidelined

It follows that if peace is to reign in the East China Sea, an outside mediator might be needed to defuse tensions and foster some kind of constructive dialogue between China and Japan. At first glance, the United States appears to be the most likely candidate. Armed conflict between Japan and China is about the last thing Washington wants to see in the Asia Pacific region, especially since it would be legally obligated to join in under the terms of the US-Japan security treaty. These concerns were echoed at a recent high-level defense meeting in Seoul, where Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of US Pacific Command, urged a diplomatic solution to the East China Sea dispute, warning that it would take just one miscalculation from an inexperienced naval officer on either side for a full-blown crisis to break out.

Yet while it’s certainly true that the United States has a lot to lose in any conflict over the Diaoyu Islands, the Americans are not viewed as an impartial party in the eyes of the Chinese leadership. To Beijing, the enduring US military presence in the Asia Pacific – which itself hinges on the US-Japan security treaty – is a cold war anachronism that has been quietly repackaged into a containment strategy aimed at China. This perception of a pro-Japan bias hampers the US government’s ability to step in and broker a deal to end the dispute, leaving it with the single and thus far futile recourse of pressuring its ally in Tokyo to stand down.

The Taiwan Factor

There is another party embroiled in the East China Sea dispute, albeit one that is frequently absent from the headlines. Taiwan maintains its own claim to the islands, and it is geographically closest to the tiny archipelago. The Ma Ying-jeou government has also displayed some diplomatic flexibility vis-à-vis the obstinance on display in Beijing and Tokyo. In April of last year, Taiwan and Japan agreed to a fishing accord granting Taiwanese fisherman access to Japan’s exclusive economic zone around the disputed area. The deal stands as a positive example of mutual economic benefit beating out the short-term political expediency of a populist line.

The Ma government in Taiwan is also promoting a more comprehensive diplomatic solution to the conflict in the form of its East China Sea Peace Initiative (ECSPI). The plan calls for a peaceful resolution to the dispute that: avoids antagonism; promotes dialogue; abides by international law; establishes a code of conduct; and allows for joint exploration and development of resources in the disputed area. Though it’s unlikely the Taiwanese plan will be accepted at face value by China, which views the self-governing island as its own province and thus lacking in the authority to engage in multilateral diplomacy, the ECSPI is the best attempt so far at taking this precarious regional flashpoint and transforming it into an economic boon for all parties involved.

Moving Forward

Like so many other disputes past and present, it doesn’t matter so much which party is “right” on the Diaoyu Islands, but that the issue is resolved in a peaceful manner. Doing so will require an act of faith from both Japan and China. Abe may already be attempting, however feebly, to atone for his recent shrine visit, declaring that “no heroes rest at Yasukuni” in a Davos speech that was roundly panned by Chinese and South Korean diplomats. It will take a lot more than that to reopen the regional lines of communication, and the task might fall to the Japanese people, who need to send a message to Abe that his dream is not a shared one.

A diplomatic opportunity lies in Japan’s self-marginalization if Beijing is willing to seize it. If the Chinese government can transcend the bitter history involved and take the lead in implementing the spirit of Taiwan’s ECSPI plan, it would go a long way in proving that Beijing is a responsible force in the region. This would serve Chinese interests in a wider sense, from defusing tensions in the South China Sea and sapping regional support for a greater US military presence, to even accruing some of that much sought-after soft power.  When viewed in this light, the cost of serious, though ultimately passing popular dissatisfaction might be worth paying in order to shore up longer term strategic considerations.

Given what’s at risk – the lives, wealth, and legacy; not just in East Asia but the world – the decision to seek a peaceful solution should be a no-brainer.

For more information about the competing claims on the Diaoyu Islands, please click here.

Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to

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  • Karl Heinz Eisler Col

    I agree, completely right. To purchase weapons and to prepare measure which are quite similira to a first step war is nit the answer. Japan and Cina must find a peaceful way for example to cooperate in getting raw materials from the sea. Peace will stabilize the whole region

  • Dick Thurston

    Thank you Neville Chamberlain. That’s just what we need, more demands for "peace in our time." Mr Fillingham presents the usual pacifist attitude – a call for "peace" without any practicasl method of achieving it. Japan and China are traditional enemies with much ill-will on both sides. This article is a simple recitation of well-known facts with no practical ideas. It bears a great ddeal of similiarities to Rodney King’s lament, "Can’t we all just get along. Another waste oif bandwidth.

  • Charles

    "…should be a no-brainer."

    How many times has that mattered?

    Who will profit from conflict matters far more than what is the easiest, safest, cheapest and arguably best solution.

    If it were otherwise, there would be no wars.

  • Justmytots2

    I honestly believe that the problem here is not Japan but China. The continued economic and military growth of China swelled the mind of its leadership. Now, they feel they have the power to confront anyone in the region because of their military might. I fully agree, the current leadership has abandoned the doctrine that the original CCP has envisioned. They are now in "attack" mode and sadly, since, the smaller states in region do not have the strenght to face them, only Japan stands in their way. Defeating Japan will serve two purpose. One avenge their humiliation during the 2nd world war and two, to eliminate the only stumbling block towards their full control of Asia. therefore, it is imperative that the US must look at this as a warning sign and prevent China at all cost to dominate Asia. China already has full control of the world economy. If China controls Asia, then the US will be left at China’s mercy when it comes to Asia’s commerce.

  • Bob Goedjen

    This type of recommendation is what causes a lack of opportunity to have peace. It is more a reflection of what the allies tried to do in WWII and for that matter in WWI.
    Like other parts of the world China’s government is using something that occured a half century and more ago to stir up their people (and support the current government). We need to be far more able to forget the past but our governments use it for their own purpose. The USA has very few options to help peace continue and not fully supporting our friends and allies is not one of them. Japan will rearm and will change their constitution some day and our not supporting them now will speed that day. That is not what I see you advocating.

  • Stein-Erik Mattsson

    Maybe what Japan is shopping for has nothing to do with the islands. Maybe Japan is after ending the remaining restrictions on its military. By playing with fire against China, the one that should be – and also are, it seems like – most concerned is the US. They have taken upon themselves to defend Japan, and thus might be facing the aspiring superpower China. Something the Americans definitely would not want, but still have to in order not to lose credibility if push comes to shove. Japan certainly do not want to its alliance with the US, but they might want – and need – more leverage militarily. And would not the present situation be ideal to achieve this from the US? As for a potential conflict with China, Japan can easily pull out at any time without losing face. Similar to what Prime Minister Abe did at Davos. After all Japan is a country with a restricted military, facing the world’ superpower No. 2. For the US any such manoouvering is more difficult. But why should Japan need more military leverage? National self-confidence might be one issue. Furthermore Japan could be facing worse situations even closer to home. The regime of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seems pretty unstable at the moment. And what if Kim’s missile testing should end up with a rocket detonating in Japan, even though by mistake? Thus, the wish for more Japanese military leverage is not totally unjustified.

  • Zachary Fillingham

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    @Bob Goedjen
    I don’t really touch down on this in the article, but what more can the U.S do than it has already done in stating the islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty? That’s fairly ‘all in’ in terms of support.

    Perhaps true, but the fundamental question is the interpretation/risk-reward calculations of said conflict. That subjectivity can create opportunities for cooperation.

    @Dick Thurston
    It’s an easy connection to make, though in my opinion it’s wrong. We like to lean heavily on WWI/WII for historical allegories, but the fact of the matter is international politics has changed. The empires are gone and nuclear weapons preclude the kind of state-to-state total war of the past. China is locked into an international system that it has thus far benefited greatly from; it is not, like interwar Germany, a non-status quo power striving to reorder international society.

    Also, however unfortunate that Mr. Chamberlain seems to have permanently sullied the word ‘peace,’ there is nothing overly ‘appeasing’ about supporting the ECSPI plan. Even if you were to attribute sovereignty to any of the three of the parties involved (which, you’ll note the ECSPI plan does not do), the overlapping EEZs would necessitate this kind of cooperation anyways.

  • tnourie

    Two thought on this article:

    One – the author seems to have granted ownership (in hopes of peace?) to China via the naming issue by using "Diaoyu Islands" as the default name instead of the name the current legal owner (Japan) uses.

    Two – I see no way past an armed conflict without China backing down, which it will not. Both countries view "not losing face" as a policy motovator. China has others view of her new "regional authority" and the rights to the oil there to lose and Japan has the oil and a legal claim to the islands to lose.

    Neither side can back away, unless they agree to split control, which opens up issues with the Phillipines and Taiwan (both also claimants of the island chain). I believe there will be an armed conflict, but it will remain, in the short term, local, Japan will win it for reasons of a purely better military. This will, eventualy, open into a wider war which will end who knows where.

  • Sid Trevethan

    IF WWII political decisions were honored, the islands would be part of an Okinawa which was returned to ROC China – so the ROC claim is stronger than usually realized. Nominally the treaty giving Japan control of Okinawa was nullified by WWII, and all territory ceded was to be returned. Cold War politics changed the Potsdam Declaration. The title of the item is woefully inappropriate – war IS an option – and a moderately likely on in the medium term. I didn’t say it was a good option. It isn’t.

  • John Roberts

    As I see it these tensions are being stoked deliberately by the USA which is encouraging Japan and to a lesser extent the Philippines and Korea to become more militaristic. Immediately after the Asia-Pacific War between the USA and Japan, the latter ceded all claims to its former overseas territorial possessions as part of the general terms of surrender but regarding the Senkaku/Daoyou islands later reneged.

    The author portrays the USA as if it were some dispassionate outside observer forced by treaty commitments to ‘protect’ Asia from itself rather than historically being a major player responsible for much of the political tensions in the region.

    The so-called Pivot To Asia is merely a continuation of the relentless drive for global domination of the 1%. For the USA the Cold War never ended and it never will until the underlying structural causes (its military-industrial complex and American capitalism itself) have been remedied.

  • Tom

    I don’t know much about politics, but it would be a real shame to see either the Japanese or Chinese kill each other. They’re both so culturally rich, and neat people. I also don’t get why they’re bringing up historical bits to blame on modern people who had absolutely nothing to do with those crimes, memories most of the modern world just don’t have. They have to learn how to leave the past in the past, and focus on the future.

    I’m hoping to see Japan someday, and communicate with them, since I’m studying their language and culture. I was also going to do that with China eventually, but…if they…ugh, I just don’t want to see that happen.

    I really hope there’s a peaceful resolution to this.

  • Bob Aronoff

    We cannot change the past, it is fact. What Japan can do is print the truth in its school textbooks instead of making light of the atrocities committed 1937-1945 in China. Secondly, it can come forth and demonstrate its responsibility as to the "Comfort Women" matter and its subjugation of the Korean peoples 1905-1945. And separate the graves of war criminals from ordinary foot soldiers at the Yasukuni Shine that certain of its leaders like to taunt the Chinese and Koreans by visit — there are other
    cemeteries to honor the dead in the War of the Pacific.
    China, for its part, needs to move on from what can’t be changed from WWII, not seek a hegemony over Asia for its self-perceived needs, stop expanding its maritime rights by unilaterally claiming vast ocean waters, and allow a lot t more freedom to its people if representative democracy is possible in their political system of one-party rule (= quite jailing people for their political thoughts, if peaceful, which they have been). Finally, give all these small disputed islands to a small nation which is no threat to anyone, Taiwan, or some kind of political solution in which the Philippines and Taiwan have jurisdiction over these uninhabitable islands. This is also a spot for the UN
    to be the mediator to get the job done — and the quicker the better.

  • Ian Crawford

    "Every day we encounter countless golden opportunities, brilliantly disguised as insurmountable problems." The East China Sea dispute presents an opportunity for mature leadership to embark on a shared solution of ownership and exploitation to harmonise interests and progress improved relations. Other countries with interests in a shared beneficial outcome should be encouraging this initiative.

  • Tom

    Great article and very insightful. We focus on China and its inability to come to grips with the realities of WWII, particularly the Japanese misbehavior on Chinese soil. Often forgotten is the US role military role played out in China during WWII. Our Army Air Corps did much to defeat the Japanese and tie down Japanese forces in China. Also, China is the only surviving mass genocide state from the 20th Century. China has not come to grips with what Chairman Mao did to the Chinese people (28,000,000 murdered). There is much to reconcile for China, perhaps even more than the Japanese atrocities. For China and Japan, it is time to move into the 21st Century. WWII is over and most of the veterans of the conflict have passed away.

  • 1935=1945? most Japanese were not Alive! why cull over spilled milk
    the senkaku dispute should go the way of all daiyou islands—–buried under the sea. Robb Detje M.D. Al-Nippon Tours, LLC.WLi

  • MC

    This article is so China biased. Not only are Senkaku Islands referred to by their Chinese name, but only the Japanese nationalistic feelings are considered "troubling" while the CCP indoctrination is fine.

    I’m so annoyed to have read this one sided essay.

  • Taylor

    People seem to be missing the big picture here. Something that stands out like a sore thumb yet no one seems to see. Why is the Chinese Government hashing this up now? This has been an issue for the last seventy years, brought up diplomatically through every conceivable area it could be brought up. Strategically this island is of course desirable. On almost any other subject though, this island is useless territory. The Chinese know that any form of spying would be thwarted at every level. Any military action taken on this island would result in swift action on it by the United States as a result to assist the Japanese.
    There is no real value to having this island. So the question remains, what is the big deal here? Why bring this up now?
    The Chinese have been, for the better part of the last year operating against its foes using computer attacks. Why fight an enemy in a battle when its simpler to attack its infrastructure. There were as I recall, (I may be mistaken on this) three Chinese generals who touted the merits of attacking through an enemies stocks and other commodities. They wrote a book on how to accomplish this. (Cant remember the title, sorry).
    So why attempt a possible military action that wont really get anything of use?
    The fact is that the Chinese are more interested in the actions Of N. Korea. In fact they have been doing a great deal of business with them for years. Kim Jong Un all of a sudden decided to distance N. Korea from China. (He killed his uncle who was originally the front runner wanted by the N. Korean military to take over the country. And the lead on all interest with China. One of the public reason Un supposedly killed him for)
    No, there is something else going on here and people seem to be deliberately or inadvertently missing it. Someone needs to take another look at this situation. This could in fact be nothing more than a faint to keep all eyes off whatever it is they really have in mind. In my opinion, N. Korea. Strategically they have a door way into the south and a stepping stone to Japan and the western coast of the United States should hostilities ever break out.


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