A Japanese friend and I met for dinner at the Beijing Normal University campus canteen. The overcrowded campus eateries are operated like well-oiled machines. Inside our oval-shaped canteen, various food stalls surround more than 100 perfectly ordered immovable four-person tables. I managed to find seats at a table beside two locals while my friend inspected the food options. Curious that we were speaking Chinese, one of the locals at our table, politely greeted us and introduced himself as a biology professor at the university. After the usual pleasantries, an awkward silence fell over the table when my friend mentioned his Japanese heritage. A few moments later, the others moved to a table behind us to finish their meals and the professor left for class.

Tensions between Japan and China have intensified

The quarrel between China and Japan over the purchase a remote set of islands in the East China Sea, known to the Japanese as the Senaku Islands and to the Chinese as the Diaoyus, has markedly cooled relations between the two Asian giants. In particular, Beijing’s aggressive response to the dispute has caused many to question its intentions. However, the main reason for the Chinese government’s strong stance on the Diaoyus is due to internal nationalistic pressure.

In early September, Japan’s federal government made the decision to purchase the Diaoyus from a private Japanese owner after Tokyo’s recently resigned right-wing governor, Shintaro Ishihara, made clear his intentions to purchase the island chain and open it to development. The federal government in Japan claimed the purchase was necessary to placate nationalist sentiment and prevent deteriorating ties with Beijing.

The government in Beijing claims the Japanese acquisition of the Diaoyus infringes on Chinese sovereignty. Others have argued that China’s strong stance over the island is a form of territorial expansionism perhaps for purpose of resource acquisition. However, the Chinese government’s strong position on the Diaoyus is based on neither territory expansionism nor the Chinese government’s interpretation of sovereignty infringement. Rather, internal nationalistic pressure is forcing Beijing to play a stronger hand against Japan.

Let’s be clear: China and Japan’s conflict over the Diaoyus will not result in military action. War, at this point, is simply not an option for the Chinese government.

First, war would have severe and far-reaching implications on the political and economic stability in Asia at a time when China is under pressure to provide stable and reliable growth over the long term.  In fact, China must not only maintain its current rate of growth to support a growing population, however, at the same time, it must increase the size of its middle class and move growth away from the manufacturing sector and into the service sector.[1]

Second, war between Japan and China would increase America’s involvement in the region and deepen US integration in Asia, an ongoing frustration for China. Beijing has openly expressed resentment for Washington’s pivot to Asia, and a conflict between China and Japan would give the Washington an opportunity to successfully rebalance the Asia Pacific.

Third, the strategic importance of the Diaoyus from the perspective of Beijing is negligible. The island is simply not a crucial component of Chinese national interests nor will it constitute a critical part of China’s overall strategy in Asia in the near future. The emphasis here is on the ‘near future’. The benefit of the islands to resource acquisition in the waters surrounding it is uncertain at best and the strategic importance, military or otherwise, is debatable.

Finally, although the Chinese and Japanese fishing operations have worked together for decades in the surrounding waters, the small island chain has been under Japan’s administration for over a century and has remained uninhabited. In fact, visiting or living on the Diaoyus is illegal, and they are protected by Japan’s regional forces. More importantly, there is no sign that the government in Tokyo will change this arrangement after the islands are nationalized and the federal government has stated that their decision to purchase the Diaoyus was for the purpose of maintaining the status quo.

From a strictly realpolitik perspective, the risks of taking the islands through force substantially outweigh any potential benefits, and it is in the best interests of China and Japan to solve this issue gradually through diplomacy.

The Chinese government’s internal struggles and the Diaoyus

The Chinese government’s response to the island dispute thus far has been a product of growing nationalistic sentiment within China, and the government’s struggle to safeguard its legitimacy.

China’s growth and new prosperity has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in nationalism. The Chinese economy has improved so rapidly that its citizens identify with both the powerful 21st century China and the isolated and victimized China of most of the 20th Century. As a result the Chinese government is under increasing pressure from its own people to flex its 21st century international muscle.

This pressure is magnified by the government’s constant battle with protecting its legitimacy. Rampant corruption and unapologetic intolerance to political dissent, among other factors, has constantly challenged the CCP’s authority to govern the Chinese people.

Certainly, the seriousness of this territorial dispute is exacerbated by Japan’s role, as it opens fresh wounds of Japanese aggression and territorial occupation. From my conversations with Chinese students and friends, the most common anecdotal theme is that the government’s response to the Diaoyus dispute has been ‘too weak.’  Public sentiment like this places the Beijing government in the precarious position of placating the concerns of its citizens while avoiding military conflict with Japan.

China’s current position toward Japan may have already arrived at a point of ‘no return.’ A few weeks ago China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zhang Zhijun, remarked that “[w]e have the confidence and the ability to uphold the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. No amount of foreign threats or pressure will shake the resolve of the Chinese government and people.” This may be true but the real threat is internal.

China and Japan are on a path of greater economic interdependence where stability is paramount. Both Beijing and Tokyo would rather suspend this disagreement to a later time. Nationalistic pressure, though, has placed the Chinese government in a difficult position. How those in Beijing manage the current conflict will define and shape the future of governance in China.

Further Reading

The federal government in Japan claimed the purchase was necessary to placate nationalist sentiment and prevent deteriorating ties with Beijing.

“Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara quits to form new party,” BBC News, October 25, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-20078481.

“He has consistently antagonised China, and provoked the crisis in relations this year with his plan to buy and develop a group of disputed islands, our correspondent says.” [para.14]

“Tension flared again when Mr Ishihara said he wanted to buy the islands in April. In September, the Japanese government confirmed its purchase of the disputed islands from private owners.” [para.20]

“Japanese ministers said the move prevented ties from worsening with China – which was certain to happen if Mr Ishihara had succeeded in buying the islands.” [para.21]

“Shintaro Ishihara Toru Hashimoto combine forces for election battle,” South China Morning Post, November 18, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1085052/shintaro-ishihara-toru-hashimoto-combine-forces-election-battle.

“As governor, he helped instigate the territorial spat with China by saying Tokyo would buy and develop the disputed East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.” [para.11]

“The central government bought the islands, apparently to thwart Ishihara’s more inflammatory plans.” [para.12]

The government in Beijing claimed the Japanese acquisition of the Diaoyus infringes on Chinese sovereignty.

“China warns of strong steps in Japan island spat,” Reuters, October 26, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/26/us-china-japan-idUSBRE89P0UN20121026.

“Chinese ambassador urges Japan to reflect on attitude to history,” Xinhua News Agency, November 03, 2012. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-11/03/c_131949205.htm.

“China’s policies on Diaoyu Islands are aimed at safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and they are lawful and justified, Liu said.” [para.10]

“Chinese envoy to Europe rejects Japan’s latest Diaoyu claims,” Xinhua News Agency, November 03, 2012. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-11/03/c_131949291.htm

Extracted quote: “In all levels of contact with the Japanese side, the Chinese side presented China’s stern position and steely resolve to uphold China’s sovereignty. We urge the Japanese side to give up its illusions and correct its mistakes,” he said. [para.10]

 Others have argued that China’s strong stance over the island is a form of territorial expansionism perhaps for purpose of resource acquisition or to present a strong face to other countries that may want to challenge China’s resolve.

Ralph Jennings, “The real reason China-Japan are locked in a territory dispute” Christian Science Monitor, October 29, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2012/1029/The-real-reason-China-Japan-are-locked-in-a-territory-dispute.

Austin Ramzy, “As Island Dispute Simmers, China’s Hu Calls for Rise of a Maritime Power,” Time Magazine, November 8, 2012. Retrieved from http://world.time.com/2012/11/08/as-islands-dispute-lingers-chinas-hu-calls-for-building-of-a-maritime-power/.

“China’s new leadership doesn’t want to look weak on its territorial disputes with Japan and southeast Asian neighbors including Vietnam and the Philippines.” [para.4]

[1] Private discussion with Dr. Prof. Zhang Jianping Senior Researcher and Director of the Department of International Economic Cooperation for the National Development and Reform Commission of China.