The Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute: Japan’s quiet power

Author: Andy Yee

On 7 September, two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships collided with a Chinese fishing boat while they carried out ‘law enforcement activities’ in the waters of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Zhan Qixiong, 41, is now in detention by the order of an Okinawa local court, sparking demonstrations in Beijing and diplomatic protests from China. On the day of collision, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu demanded ‘Japanese patrol boats refrain from so-called law enforcement activities in waters off the Diaoyu islands.’ Japanese Ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, was summoned four times over the incident, the last call being made by State Councillor Dai Bingguo.

Meanwhile, Mr Niwa showed no indication that Japan is going to back down, and maintained that Japan will ‘solemnly handle the case in strict accordance with domestic law.’

Regardless of whom is to bear responsibility for maritime disobedience (Japan Coast Guard or the Chinese fishing boat) the incident demonstrates the intricate dynamics in the East China Sea. China is well aware, though reluctant to admit, that Japan exerts effective control of the islands.

Short on rhetoric, but rich in substance, Japan exerts ‘quiet power’ over the disputed islands through its superior military strength. The Japan Maritime Self Defence Force regularly undertakes guarding missions in the area. Its Maritime Safety Agency and Maritime Products Agency also constantly patrols and supervises fishing issues around the islands. And time is on the Japanese side. The longer Japan manages to maintain the status quo, the more probable that its control will become internationally recognized through the international law principle of ‘acquisitive prescription’.

By contrast, Chinese policy makers can do very little about the situation, apart from continuing to rail against it. The continuous occupation of the disputed islands by Japan has increased the cost for China of using force, which would be viewed by the international community as a sign of revisionist behaviour, effectively strengthening Japanese claims. While China did use force over the Paracels in 1974, and the Spratlys in 1988 and 1994, it then faced countries with limited naval powers, and seized islands that were either claimed but not occupied by other states, or terra nullius (empty land). In contrast, Japan possesses the strongest and most modern navy in East Asia, and the spectre of US-Japan security is always hovering in the background.

Japan has been assertive and tough. On 26 June, Japan unilaterally extended its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) westwards by 22 km on Yonaguni island, infringing Taiwan’s airspace. This extension gives Japan a freer hand in monitoring the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and oilfields in the Xihu depression. It also facilitates the deployment of significant firepower on Yonaguni.

This puts the Chinese authority in a difficult position. On the one hand, there are the strong reactions by nationalists in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, who believe the status of the islands as belonging to China should be non-negotiable and think that the government has been too weak towards Japan. At the same time, the Chinese government is likely to prioritise modernisation at the expense of nationalist goals, as continued economic development is an important source of its continued legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese population. Time and again, China has restrained its nationalism over the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue for economic reasons: it was reluctant to jeopardize Japanese ODA and FDI in the 1980s, it wanted a guarantee of Japanese support against Western economic sanctions in the wake of the Tiananmen Incident in early 1990s, and was unwilling to endanger broader Asia-Pacific economic integration in the 2000s.

Seeing China’s dilemma, Japan has long pursued a policy of ‘no dispute’, denying that any sovereignty issue over the islands exists. It argues that as Japan practically controls the islands, it is an integral part of Japanese territory. On the day of the collision, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told a news conference that no territorial problem existed with regard to the islands.

If the fishing boat incident is a confirmation of Japan’s policy of quiet power, it has wider implications on the resolution of the territorial dispute between the two countries. A focus on effective control leads to a strengthened Japanese patrolling capacity, in turn provoking China to increase its presence in the waters surrounding the islands. It has been argued that nationalist attachment to the sovereignty of the disputed islands has broadened to include material benefits from the East China Sea as a whole. If so, what appears as minor incident could easily escalate and touch the nerve of Chinese nationalism, jeopardizing negotiations already underway on the joint development of gas fields. In response to the incident, China has already postponed the second round of discussions over the details of the joint development scheme, which started barely a month before. These discussions are the follow-up of the June 2008 consensus agreement between China and Japan over a framework for joint exploration and production by oil companies from each side.

The stability that has prevailed in the East China Sea is a precarious one. As China’s economy continues to build, as its navy continues to grow, and as Chinese nationalism continues to expand, China will become increasingly reluctant to accept de facto control of the disputed territories by Japan.  It is not too late for Japan to tone down its ‘quiet power’ approach, and instead focus on active dispute management. This is a far more promising way to tame Chinese nationalism and build up political trust.

Andy Yee is a writer, blogger and translator based in Hong Kong. Educated at SOAS and Cambridge University, he has worked at the Political Section of the EU Delegation to China in Beijing. He blogs at Global Voices Online and China Geeks.