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There is an appreciable risk of war between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, into which the US would be drawn, according to a new publication from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Conflict is genuinely possible, despite the potential costs to both nations far outweighing the economicvalue of the disputed territory.
In his new Adelphi publication, The Ties That Divide: History, Honour and Territory
in Sino-Japanese Relations, William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Fellow for
Asia-Pacific Security, examines the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the
two Asian nations.
He claims that the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,
which is entangled with a disagreement over Japan's wartime record, has directly
affected military postures in and around the disputed islands, and raised the
possibility of open conflict.
According to Choong, relations between the two countries have descended down a
dangerous spiral. He asserts that the more Japan refuses to come clean on historical
issues and admit that there is a dispute over the islands, the more China feels
compelled to act in the form of incursions into the waters surrounding the chain. In
January 2013, Japan alleged that Chinese naval vessels operating in the vicinity of
the islands had twice locked their fire-control radars on Japanese counterparts. In
response to what it deemed to be increased Chinese incursions into Japanese
territorial waters around the islands, Tokyo issued a Defense White Paper exhibiting
strong antipathy towards Beijing.
Choong states that top-level dialogue and interactions between political leaders
from both sides have now largely ceased, with both nations indulging in increasingly
nationalistic behaviour and rhetoric. The impact of this dispute, he claims, has
been further compounded by factors such as the enduring strength of the US-Japan
alliance, Tokyo's post-2001 efforts towards remilitarisation, its shift to the right
during Shinzo Abe's second term as prime minister and Beijing's perception that the
US seeks to contain its 'peaceful rise' through a network of alliances and
partnerships across the Asia-Pacific.
Choong said: 'Existing trends entail an appreciable risk of armed conflict. The US
rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is stoking Chinese fears about containment and Japan
casting off its post-war restrictions in order to become a "normal power".
'In the absence of any move by Japan to recognise that a territorial dispute exists,
China will continue or increase its maritime incursions into the territorial waters
of the Senkakus/Diaoyus. The Japan Coast Guard will respond by intercepting Chinese
vessels. At some point, another 'radar lock-on' incident could occur, leading to
military exchanges. This would draw in the US, because the disputed islands are
covered by the US security guarantee to Japan. That in turn would imperil regional
A fight over the islands, states Choong, would eradicate decades of goodwill built
up after 1972. It would cut off people-to-people exchanges between China and Japan
and endanger sea-lanes so crucial for global commerce and supply-chain networks.
Three factors, he says, should be noted when considering the risks of conflict.
Firstly, the cool-headed decision of national leaders in the 1970s to shelve
contentious issues such as Japan's wartime record and the question of sovereignty
over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has been overturned. In its place, both sides are
indulging in nationalism and an inclination toward irrational or risky behaviour.
Secondly, China and Japan have invested much more in their claims to the islands
than is justified by their value or the costs of an open conflict over them.
Thirdly, neither the cultural and linguistic affinities between the two countries
nor their economic interdependence preclude the possibility of such a conflict.
Scholars on both sides of the East China Sea are concerned that hostilities could
escalate and even lead to war.
According to the Asia expert, immediate measures need to be taken to reduce tensions
and limit the diplomatic and strategic impact of the disputes over history and the
islands. This could include the creation of crisis-management mechanisms, a code of
conduct in the East China Sea and political understandings to lower the tensions
over the islands and historical issues through shelving or a similar arrangement.
William Choong is the Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the IISS.
For more information on The Ties That Divide: History, Honour and Territory in Sino-Japanese Relations, visit the IISS website here.