The Struggle for the Control of East China Sea

27-08-2014

A dispute that has simmered for more than 40 years between Japan and China (and Taiwan) has flared up, bringing Beijing and Tokyo close to a potentially devastating armed confrontation. At issue is the control of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known by the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and by the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands. In recent years China has radically changed its approach, moving from the relatively moderate and reasonable attitude to world affairs it had adopted for decades to a very assertive foreign policy aimed at, inter alia, bolstering its military and political role in Asia and securing key strategic positions off its coastline. China has unilaterally attempted to modify the status quo in the region to conform to an old vision of Asia, in which Imperial China played a hegemonic role. With increasing frequency, China’s Communist Party has played the ‘nationalism’ card to bolster its domestic legitimacy. For its part, Japan appears unready to accept the Chinese claim over the desolate, barren archipelago, and has refused even to acknowledge the dispute’s existence. The quarrel has resuscitated nationalist sentiments in an otherwise pacifist Japan, even leading to a revision of the constitution to allow the Japanese armed forces to assist allies, and to an expansion of the country’s military cooperation with the US.

A dispute that has simmered for more than 40 years between Japan and China (and Taiwan) has flared up, bringing Beijing and Tokyo close to a potentially devastating armed confrontation. At issue is the control of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known by the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and by the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands. In recent years China has radically changed its approach, moving from the relatively moderate and reasonable attitude to world affairs it had adopted for decades to a very assertive foreign policy aimed at, inter alia, bolstering its military and political role in Asia and securing key strategic positions off its coastline. China has unilaterally attempted to modify the status quo in the region to conform to an old vision of Asia, in which Imperial China played a hegemonic role. With increasing frequency, China’s Communist Party has played the ‘nationalism’ card to bolster its domestic legitimacy. For its part, Japan appears unready to accept the Chinese claim over the desolate, barren archipelago, and has refused even to acknowledge the dispute’s existence. The quarrel has resuscitated nationalist sentiments in an otherwise pacifist Japan, even leading to a revision of the constitution to allow the Japanese armed forces to assist allies, and to an expansion of the country’s military cooperation with the US.