What’s really surprising about the China-Japan standoff

Look beyond the headlines and the hysteria and there are some important questions to be asked about the diplomatic standoff betwen China and Japan over a scattering of rocky islands, especially as Beijing brings in a new cohort of leaders.   


Look beyond the headlines and the hysteria and there are some important questions to be asked about the diplomatic standoff betwen China and Japan over a scattering of rocky islands, especially as Beijing brings in a new cohort of leaders. 

The Economist’s current front cover asks a simple and scary question: Could China and Japan really go to war over a scattering of rocky islands? Sadly yes, it concludes. The Economist’s cover story is just one of a multitude examining the Senkaku-Diaoyutai islands and Sino-Japanese relations, and many of them come to similarly alarming conclusions. But at such an auspicious time in China, as it reconfigures its leadership, it is also worth asking what is really new and surprising about the current stand-off, and what owes more to the rituals of rivalry.

Three features stand out as new. First, this flash of tension is happening very close to the Party Congress that will install successors to the Hu-Wen duet of leaders. Pre-Congress politicking, including polemics on policies, has happened before. Conservatives and reformers (or leaders wishing to appear as reformers) have often locked horns through the press or prominent public intellectuals during that pre-Congress phase. One has to go back to 1984, however, to see foreign policy used so directly as a major political issue. Then, it was against the politically liberal Hu Yaobang, a general secretary who was finally ousted in January 1987. Japan was already the fuse, because Hu Yaobang had invited thousands of Japanese youngsters to China, in what was a move to solidify the relationship with Tokyo. In fact, the younger Hu Jintao, now China’s outgoing leader, and Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, both participated in this friendship event. Conservatives used the pretext to counter Hu Yaobang and political reform, and it is only after this turn that China’s propaganda and education began highlighting and drumming up the historical issues between the two countries. Even so, the campaign was not held so close to a major institutional event.

Second, there has never been such simultaneous display of wide-spread anti-Japanese (or anti-foreign) demonstrations coinciding with a wide range of economic sanctions or official threats. The break with the past is quantitative more than qualitative. Some European countries have suffered tourist travel ‘sanctions’ and visa issues, but the actual functioning of the ‘world’s workshop’ has never been hindered by issues in foreign relations. China sanctioned Japan in 2010 around the rare earth issue: Japan is a major user of rare earths, because of its advances electronics and electrical industries, in part competing with China. Outright boycotts are another matter, and one has to dig for the May 4, 1919 tradition to find them. China is now taking a big risk over WTO issues – even if it claims that it is only following the lead of the United States, which has condoned commercial sanctions as a tool of foreign policy – but never in a bilateral dispute. The willingness to risk economic relations with a key trading partner is an extraordinary act of self-confidence, or an extraordinary miscalculation. Lost in the din, a Japanese government spokesman in August declared that Japan would not continue regional economic cooperation with China against all odds. And the United States have just announced a large package of anti-dumping actions targeting China.

Third, the language and methods used by demonstrators are unprecedentedly inflammatory and aggressive in recent history: again, this should be judged on an aggregate scale, not from isolated incidents. Banners talk about ‘nuking’ Japan, and there are riots (not just demonstrations) against signs of Japanese presence as well as direct attacks on diplomats. There is of course considerable doubt as to how much these acts are spontaneous or organised, and there are also doubts whether some at least of the violence – especially in Southern China – is not just another way to vent dissatisfaction against authorities. But given the extraordinary fast move, during the same period, by authorities to stamp out domestic political gossip on the internet and social media  there is no doubt that the anti-Japanese ugliness is at least being allowed to run its course.

There is much less that’s really new in the issue itself – the barren islands that are at the heart of the formal dispute. True, numbers are impressive – in terms of Chinese maritime patrol boats deployed, and corresponding Japanese mobilisation. But this is not the PLA navy, nor is it Japan’s navy. There have been hints of a 1000 ship flotilla of Chinese fishermen sailing to the area, and this would have looked as a repeat of the Red Guards deployment against Soviet soldiers on the contested Ussuri border in 1969. Luckily, this tryst, which would have forced a Japanese response, seems to have been shelved. And U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, visiting Beijing, has also called for Japanese military restraint.  All the arguments regarding possession are well-known and worn-out, but suffice it to say that Japan would have a sound legal (not necessarily historical…) case to make, except that it has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the very existence of the issue and therefore does not engage in the legal route. However China may be infuriated that a few weeks ago Japan, for the first time, announced it would consider an international legal ruling of another territorial dispute with South Korea. Back in 1998, Japan’s extension of formal apologies to South Korea for its actions during the war was actually taken as a slight by China, which considered it should come first.

One question looms over all the others: are these events connected with the succession issue and with the Party Congress? Evidently they are, which does not imply that one nationalist, militaristic and politically conservative faction is alone behind them. Generally, a reform faction must beware of being blackmailed for a lack of patriotism. Deng Xiaoping took a harder line than anyone else on Vietnam, and held tough negotiations over the return of Hong Kong – including the stationing of the PLA after 1997. It is possible that outgoing leaders have avoided taking charge and curtailed too quickly and visibly the incidents and disturbances, lest they be saddled with another accusation of weakness. There are also plenty of other big issues in front of the Party Congress: the fate of Politburo member, Bo Xilai who is now openly described by China’s official news agency as having covered up the murder of a foreigner; the issue of political liberalisation and/or raising the statute of the law over arbitrary Party rule; the perennial juggernaut of economic reform that may be coming to a head with an economic slow-down.

The more conservative leaders are certainly happy to stir nationalist passions on the eve of a political succession (they don't make foreign policy themselves, though, but stir up a lobby). But whether it is this rather than a case of dancing Chinese shadows, with a view to make headline news around unifying topics, or even a ploy to distract attention from crucial issues, is perhaps not so important. What matters is that political irrationality has taken hold over a carefully calibrated foreign policy, and that China is handing its neighbours ample justification for rearmament and overcoming scepticism about the benefits of alliance with the US.

Such a miscalculation can only be collective, and therefore points in the direction of a massive insecurity inside the Chinese collective leadership. The latest news suggests that China is restraining any incidents on the ground, but toughening its formal attitude towards Japan by announcing a legal initiative and by reportedly cancelling celebrations of 40 years of diplomatic relations. Time will tell if this is a long-lasting restraint and return to rationality, or if the succession process re-ignites the downwards spiral.   


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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