China–Japan tensions over Senkaku purchase an orchestrated affair

Author: Linus Hagström, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

Last week the Japanese government signed a contract to buy the Senkaku Islands for 2.05 billion JPY (USD 26.2 million) from its private owners. Being disputed territory (the Chinese call them Diaoyu and the Taiwanese Tiaoyutai) it should come as no surprise that they get politicised from time to time, producing tensions in Sino–Japanese relations.

Still, until 2010 both governments displayed an overarching interest in maintaining calm relations, and leaders on both sides did their best to handle occasional flare-ups quietly.

Tokyo for its part has maintained a strict policy of banning anyone other than Japanese state officials from setting foot there. The sparring over the islands during the past summer shows the continuation of restraint on the part of both governments. Yet, Tokyo’s purchase of the islands may eventually alter this framework. Why did the change occur, and what will be its consequences?

When a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol ships in the direct vicinities of the disputed islands in early September 2010, most observers in Japan and around the world interpreted the ensuing interaction essentially as evidence of power shift in the region. The large number of Chinese protests, their harsh wording and, in particular, the Chinese arrest of four Japanese citizens in October 2010, and the discontinuation of rare earths exports to Japan for two months, all suggested an increasingly ‘harsh’ and ‘aggressive’ China. Japanese authorities’ sudden release of the Chinese captain, after a 17-day arrest and detention was moreover interpreted as a ‘humiliating retreat’ and seen in the context of an increasingly ‘weak’ Japan. Hence, a large number of analyses narrated the incident and its aftermath as Japan ‘caving in’ to overbearing Chinese ‘pressure’.

The strong prevalence of this narrative is arguably the context in which this year’s occurrences surrounding the islands become most understandable. Japan’s ‘weakness’ in 2010 has enabled influential Japanese opinion leaders to argue that Japan should strengthen its defences, most radically in the words of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, through the acquisition of nuclear capabilities. During a lecture at the Heritage Foundation in April this year the governor also propounded the idea of having the city of Tokyo purchase the islands as a way of strengthening Japan’s ‘effective control’, for example by constructing a port of refuge on the biggest island. Given how the incident in 2010 was narrated, at least the latter proposal seemed quite sensible to many Japanese.

Chinese activists’ visits to the islands in July and August this year could be seen as a reaction to Ishihara’s plan, which started to materialise through the setup of an account to collect contributions from the public for the purpose (to date some 1.46 billion JPY / USD 18.6 million) and negotiations with the land owners. And the subsequent visit to the area by some 150 Japanese activists and politicians on 21 ships could be interpreted as a response to the Chinese visits. Meanwhile, protests and public discontent kept raining from both sides, especially in China. In Japan, interestingly, authorities were criticised for reverting back to the policy of merely repatriating Chinese who have strayed into what Japan considers its territorial waters (rather than detaining them as they did in 2010).

This is the climate in which the Japanese DPJ-led government had little choice but to start pondering the nationalisation of the islands. Although Ishihara has kept criticising the Noda government for its cautious approach, when an agreement seemed to have been made with the owners he said he ‘cannot meddle’ anymore. From Ishihara’s point of view nationalisation may actually be the most favourable outcome, because ideally it is the state that should enhance its control of the islands; it is the state that should take ‘stronger’ measures.

Current Sino–Japanese tensions with regard to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands could thus be seen as a result of Ishihara orchestrating the idea to buy the islands. The dominant narrative that Japan was ‘weak’ and ‘lost’ in 2010 clearly facilitated this, because more assertive and proactive Japanese countermeasures seemed to be the logical and most sensible response.

The current Japanese government will probably maintain its cautious policy. Still, the consensus on Japan’s ‘weakness’ and Chinese ‘aggressiveness’ is likely to bring about tougher Japanese measures in the short to medium term — especially if the next general election (believed to take place soon) produces a new government formed by parties and politicians who have profited from criticising the DPJ government’s ‘weakness’. This tendency is stirred by Ishihara, who has stated he will publicly ask the candidates in the coming election for LDP president how they would develop the islands if they were elected and become prime minister.

But was Japan really ‘weak’ in 2010, and was China as ‘aggressive’, as the story goes? My research shows that the connections between the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands incident in 2010 and the detention of four Japanese nationals are very unclear, and that the idea that China put pressure on Japan to release the captain by halting rare earths exports is even more dubious. The four Japanese nationals had actually entered a restricted military zone, and were reportedly filming military targets. And there is evidence that the Japanese government tried to persuade Chinese authorities to abstain from export restrictions on rare earths several weeks before the Diaoyu/Senkaku incident.

Moreover, the fact that this was the first time a Chinese national was detained around the islands could be construed as Japanese escalation. In addition, the incident was instrumental for Tokyo in eliciting more explicit US reassurances in regard to the islands in the fall of 2010; enhancing the Japanese people’s ‘realisation’ of ‘the necessity’ to maintain US bases on Okinawa; and launching important changes to Japanese security policy in the revised National Defence Program Guidelines in December 2010. Hence, it seems very difficult to maintain that Japan ‘lost’ or was ‘defeated’.

The bottom line is to emphasise that narratives are more important than facts in enabling and restricting policies, because they impose ‘a meaningful pattern on what would otherwise be random and disconnected’. Although the DPJ government would most likely prefer to keep the status quo on the islands, the narrative on Japan’s ‘weakness’ and China’s ‘aggressiveness’ makes stronger Japanese measures seem inevitable. Nationalisation has been framed as such a measure. This is the context in which the tensions this past summer should be understood and in which further aggravation of Sino–Japanese relations can be expected.

Linus Hagström is an associate professor of political science and a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. He recently published an analysis of the 2010 incident in The Chinese Journal of International Affairs.