An escalating dispute between Japan and China over an island chain in the East China Sea is focusing attention on
increasingly nationalistic moves by the rival Asian powers. Experts say the governments in Beijing and Tokyo are reacting to new domestic challenges as well as to long-running grievances of their nationalist movements.
The latest escalation in the dispute started in April, when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he had begun negotiations to buy four of the archipelago’s five islands from a Japanese family that has owned them for decades. The islands are named Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Ishihara, a prominent nationalist, said he wants to ensure the islands remain under the sovereignty of Japan, which annexed them unilaterally in 1895. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda later said the central government also was talking to the Kurihara family about buying the islands.
When a group of Chinese activists sailed to the islands on August 15 to emphasize China’s sovereignty claim, Japan detained and deported them. Four days later, Tokyo appeared to allow a group of Japanese nationalists to land on the chain’s main island, despite having warned them to stay away.
Japan’s moves can be explained in part as a reaction to the prospect of a deal between the Kurihara family and the Tokyo governor.
Reacting to negotiations
Japanese media said the Kuriharas have been under pressure to sell the islands because of heavy debts. They bought the islands, known individually in Japanese as Uotsuri, Kita, Minami and Kuba, from another family in 1978, before leasing them to the government in 2002.
Professor Kiichi Fujiwara of the University of Tokyo said the Kurihara family also is nationalistic and has apparent “misgivings” about the level of the ruling party’s commitment to Japanese control of the islands.
Fujiwara said Japanese nationalists were upset when the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009 and advocated a “cozy” relationship with China, which insists the islands were Chinese territory long before Japan’s annexation.
Japanese media said Tokyo governor Ishihara’s bid to buy the islands has worried Noda’s central administration, with some officials warning China could react angrily if Ishihara succeeds.
The officials said a central government purchase of the islands could reduce the risk.
Japanese nationalist grievances
Fujiwara, an international relations expert, said Japanese nationalists also worry about what they see as aggressive Chinese actions in other disputed waters.
“Many Chinese fishing boats have been operating in waters [claimed by] the Philippines and Vietnam [around] the Spratley islands,” he said. “There is this fear that the Chinese now are about to claim territorial control [of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands] and also use them for their own purposes.”
Bonnie Glaser, a China studies expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Japan’s ruling party is listening to the nationalists because it has weakened public support and may be forced to call early elections this year.
“They are trying to respond to the demands of their people and at the same time trying to manage relations with their neighbors,” she said. “They are not doing a very good job of it at the moment.”
Tensions have persisted between Japan and China since September 2010, when a Chinese trawler entered the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels. Japanese authorities detained the Chinese captain for about two weeks, infuriating China, which stopped exporting rare earth materials to Japan and suspended political and cultural exchanges.
China’s more recent actions also reflect growing nationalism. After Japanese activists landed on the islands August 19, Beijing lodged a protest with Tokyo and for the first time in years allowed thousands of people to join anti-Japanese street protests in major cities.
The Chinese government also gave diplomatic support to the Chinese activists who landed on the islands this month, denouncing Japan’s detention of them and demanding their unconditional release.
Domestic political challenges
Chinese leaders are facing new domestic challenges, including preparations for a 2012 Communist Party congress aimed at approving a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
“I think the Chinese leadership is very nervous about being seen as weak (in the run up to the Congress) and not defending China’s territorial integrity,” Glaser said.
The Chinese government also has been trying to focus national attention away from allegations of corruption and abuse of power involving a prominent former Communist Party official, Bo Xilai.
Rory Medcalf of Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy said Chinese assertiveness on the islands also reflects deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment.
China’s nationalism entrenched
“[This] nationalism has been there for a long time in China, [and)] has been fostered by the Communist Party and is now getting harder to control, partly because of social media,” said Medcalf.
Glaser of CSIS said many Chinese nationalists have taken to the Internet to express anger toward Japan and criticize their government for not doing more to defend China’s sovereignty. Beijing began asserting its claim to the islands in 1971, two years after a U.N. study showed a potential for oil in the area.
Medcalf said the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have become such a focus of national pride in both China and Japan that the two governments feel compelled to react to perceived provocations by nationalists of the other side.
“There is a really unpleasant action-reaction dynamic here, and the only hope we have is that governments can see sense and manage public opinion in both countries to try to prevent a wider diplomatic crisis,” he said.