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China and Japan face off: Tiny islands, big dispute (+video)

The China and Japan face off over five islands has sunk relations to a 40-year low - the worst since diplomatic relations began. But the sabre rattling is just for show, say analysts.

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In fact, Japan's better-trained and more-professional Navy would likely defeat China's fleet should it somehow come to a shooting war, according to most foreign security analysts.

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Just for show?

But the saber rattling is likely just for show, says Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies in Beijing. "Neither side wants to recklessly provoke, and both know where the limits are," he says.

Professor Zhu worries, though, that "a mismanaged crisis is very possible, and that could lead to conflict."

The waters near the islands are currently the scene of a dangerous maritime ballet involving Japanese Coast Guard vessels, Chinese fisheries surveillance ships, and Coast Guard boats from Taiwan, which also claims the territory.

So far, hostilities have been limited to water-cannon duels, as happened Sept. 24 between Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels. But "when you have that many boats sailing around, the potential for mishap is quite high," points out Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The danger, adds Valérie Niquet, a China analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris, is that a collision, a sinking, or a fatality "could start something that would be difficult to stop," especially since China and Japan have no procedures in place to handle maritime crises.

Chinese vessels pulled out of the 12-mile zone after a few hours of patrolling last week, and Japanese Coast Guard ships have so far refrained from using force against Taiwanese fishing boats, signaling that all parties are being careful.

'There is no territorial dispute'

But neither Tokyo nor Beijing is stepping down from their position that the islands are theirs.

"There will be no policy change on nationalizing [the islands], and it is impossible to give in on this," Mr. Noda said on television recently.

He repeated Japan's insistence, especially infuriating to China, that "there is no territorial dispute" over the islands.

In China, the ruling Communist Party's official organ, the People's Daily, responded that Beijing would not compromise even with "half steps" on its demand that Japan rescind the island purchase.

The timing of this crisis does not help resolve it; China is on the brink of a once-in-a-decade leadership change when "leaders do not want China to be seen as chicken," says Zhu, and in Japan, Noda is expected to call elections in the next few months.

Facing a conservative opposition that has made the sovereignty issue a key campaign issue, "what does compromise get Noda?" asks Ms. Glaser, rhetorically.

Nationalist-minded

In the longer term, public opinion in Japan and in China is growing both more nationalist-minded and more influential, says Thomas Berger, a visiting professor of politics at Keio University in Tokyo.

"Chinese leaders have become much more sensitive to the noisier segments of Chinese public opinion," says Professor Berger, "and the Japanese public inserts itself more assertively and more erratically into the foreign-policy agenda than it used to."

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