On the evening of Friday 11, as I sat in a small restaurant in Dongcheng District, central Beijing, the TV behind my shoulders was alive with debate. In front of it sat a small group of people, their noses up toward the screen, while a lengthy TV program went on and on showing images of jet planes, warships and officials giving talks. A Chinese friend who was having dinner with me explained that the topics were Japan and America.
The next day I went to the same restaurant to find out that nothing had changed: the TV was still showing images of military forces parading and officials commenting the news. An angry PLA general declared: “if they dare to attack, we will strike back!” He was referring to recent news that Japan is considering firing warning shots against Chinese planes caught flying over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
For a long time, this small bunch of rocky islets in the Pacific Ocean had been an issue mainly for seagulls, but things have changed in the last century and even more in the last decade. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have now become the most serious problem in Sino-Japanese relations.
The islands, which are located just north of Taiwan and south-west of Okinawa, were annexed by Japan in 1895, after a war against the Qing Empire. They were administered by Japanese authorities until 1945, when Tokyo was stripped of its possession and the Islands came under US government occupation. In 1972 they were handed back to Japan, but both Beijing and Taiwan have criticized the arrangement, citing historical documents according to which the islands used to belong to China. Tokyo rejects these assumptions on the ground that when it took hold of it, the area was not occupied by any nation.
Useful as it is for scholarly purposes, as long as fierce nationalism persists on both sides battling over history will hardly make a difference in solving this irksome issue. As in the case of disputes in the South China Sea, popular sentiments widen the gap between states and block possible diplomatic efforts. Governments, however, seem to enjoy a certain amount of nationalism because it serves as a distraction from domestic issues and bolsters support for national leaders. Anti-Japanese protests in China offer a case in point: when they broke out in September 2012, authorities encouraged media participation rather than posing obstacles to it as they usually do in these cases.
Meanwhile, the military on both sides seems to be preparing for the worst. Since the ‘90s, China’s military spending has been increasing by more than 10 per cent each year. The figure for 2012 was 11.2 per cent. On January 9, it was reported that Japan’s Defence Ministry will ask for 180.5 billion yen ($ 2.1 billion) to be allocated for military purposes. The increase does not appear to be too consistent as compared to Tokyo’s overall military spending – the defence budget for the year ending in March 2012 stood at 4.65 trillion yen – but it signals a change: figures had been declining for the past 10 years.
On Sunday, Tokyo conducted a military drill specifically aimed at “defending the islands,” while Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said Japan must improve its military tactics in light of the dispute with China, another sign that the divide between the two Asian powers is, at present, unbridgeable.
Even more importantly and with potential long-term implications, Japan’s the newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared that the new government favors a revision of its pacifist Constitution, which had been in place since the end of the Second World War. According to what has been reported by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, on January 13, he stated that “reviewing the right to collective self-defence is one of Abe administration’s central policy aims, and because of that I want to discuss it with President Obama.”
While maintaining apparent neutrality the United States is actually siding with Japan, a long-time ally in East Asia and a country tied to Washington by a military alliance. The Atlantic magazine reports that on September 17 last year, during a visit to Tokyo, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said that if attacked, “all territory under Japanese administration would qualify for U.S. defence assistance as provided in the U.S.-Japan security treaty”.
Beijing is well-aware of this circumstance. As pointed out in article by state mouthpiece The People’s Daily, “to China, the United States is absolutely not neutral. Japan and the United States are military allies and U.S. statement that Japan-U.S. Security Treaty can be applied to the Diaoyu Islands issue indicates that the United States takes side with Japan. The United States and Japan has strengthened security cooperation and tried to ally with other Asian countries, which is considered directed against China.”
The dispute is one of the many currently under way on the Asian side of the Pacific Ocean. China has issues with Vietnam and the Philippines for various groups of islands in the South China Sea, while Japan has unresolved territorial disputes with South Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo chain and with Russia for the Kuril Islands. Besides increasing frictions, a looming risk is that an accident could escalate tensions to the point of no return. What would happen, for example, if a Chinese plane was shot down over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands? Hopefully, there will be no answer to such a question.