Avoiding the Unthinkable in the E. China Sea
The catalyst for escalation in this longstanding dispute, which involves claims to sovereignty between China, Japan, and Taiwan, was the announcement by Tokyo on September 10 that it had signed a deal to nationalize three of the islets — Uotsurijima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima — by purchasing them from a private owner for 2.05 billion Yen ($26 million USD). According to reports, the Japanese government had drawn up multiple plans for its next move, and nationalization, the one ultimately selected by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, was regarded as the least likely to anger Beijing and Taipei — with the exception of Plan A, which was to do nothing. Far more provocative among the eight options considered was the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to the islands around the clock.
No sooner had the announcement been made than protests erupted in various cities across China, and the following day Beijing ordered the cancellation of a scheduled visit by Japanese lawmakers, and linked the decision to the dispute. The Japanese consulate in Shanghai announced on September 14 that four Japanese citizens had been injured in attacks in China. In Taipei, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Japanese representative Sumio Tarui and recalled its envoy to Tokyo, Shen Ssu-tsun. Around the same time, China announced it had dispatched two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships to conduct patrols “near the islets,” while the Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) raised its profile with public demonstrations of escort procedures. Tokyo then announced it would mobilize its coast guard when the CMS vessels reached the archipelago. On September 14, media reported that six Chinese surveillance ships had “briefly entered waters” near the Diaoyutais. By afternoon, all vessels had left following a warning by the Japanese coast guard.
While Chinese media brought the rhetoric to fever-pitch levels, with the Beijing Evening News posting “a link to an article comparing weaponry for a potential with Japan, claiming that China should use the atomic bomb” and protesters holding placards calling on the government to “Declare war on Japan [to] settle new scores and old scores together,” apprehensions of war remain premature.
This is not to say that the situation does not have the potential to escalate. After all, amid speculation of a power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party fueled by the disappearance of President Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, Xi Jinping, from public view since September 1, some China watchers will claim that the crisis serves as a perfect diversion. Talk of settling new and old scores — which go back not only to the events leading up to World War Two, but to China’s first humiliation at the hands of the Japanese, the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 — will immediately appeal to the resentment and rising nationalism among Chinese, and could be used to direct their energy away from home and towards an external object.