High-risk friction in the East China Sea between Asia’s top economic powers is scaling up in the new year, killing hopes of an early solution, as Beijing sends planes, Japan raises its defense budget, and Taiwan tests the waters again.
Tokyo recently approved a once-off 40 billion yen ($436 million) boost in military spending and plans to form a special military unit with 10 patrol ships and two destroyers to defend a group of islets at the core of the dispute.
In January, Japanese fighters confronted planes from China on approach to an air defense identification zone near the islets. Later, three Chinese maritime surveillance vessels approached the islets, and Taiwan’s coast guard escorted a small "fishing boat" with 10 activists reportedly on board to the same place. Japan sent all the vessels away.
China, Japan, and Taiwan claim sovereignty over the islets, called the Senkakus in Tokyo, the Diaoyu by Beijing, and Tiaoyutai by Taipei. Japan controls the eight uninhabited islands, giving it a massive swathe of territorial water rich in fisheries and possible undersea natural gas reserves.
“At this particular time, all sides will just take things as is, including the US, which will try to calm everybody down,” says Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. The dispute, he says, “could take decades to solve.”
Few predict a war, but analysts say leaders in each claimant government stand to gain from fueling the dispute.
China has sent vessels toward the islets 24 times since the dispute escalated in mid-2012 following Japan’s purchase of the islets from a private owner, Japanese media say. New Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping wants to show strength in his early days of consecrating leadership, analysts say.
China and Japan already disagree on a series of issues stemming from World War II.
Japan wants a working relationship with the world's No. 2 economy, China. but also needs to stand up to Beijing for the home audience.
“What they do has to strike a difficult balance between calming Beijing and standing up to Beijing,” says Scott Harold, associate political scientist at the RAND Corp., an American think tank.
Taiwan, though ever overshadowed for lack of diplomatic clout, is also becoming harder to ignore.
On Jan. 24, the Japanese coast guard turned water cannons on the Taiwanese fishing boat with the 10 activists, sending them back to Taipei some 222 kilometers (138 miles) away. The incident earned the crew popular support in mainland China.
“When I got back a lot of people came up to me and told me that they thought Japan’s act was too extreme,” says Huang Hsi-lin, crew member and chairman of a Taiwan-based alliance to claim the islets. “We plan to make another move.”
Activists in China laud Taiwanese crews that approach the islets.
“The mainland Chinese masses will support those Taiwanese because the Diaoyu Dao are part of China, whether that’s Beijing or Taipei,” says Zhang Likun, member of Beijing's federation of activists who oppose Japan’s claim.
Most Chinese in the mainland are passionate about the East China Sea dispute, Mr. Zhang adds. Taiwanese are generally more indifferent.
Some suspect that it is not only activists from China and Taiwan who are working against Japan. As the once bitter political rivals have shelved differences since 2008, Beijing and Taipei may be cooperating behind closed doors, some analysts believe.
Taiwan says it’s not working with China. But cooperation might help staunchly self-ruled Taiwan defer political talks with Beijing, which is keen to reunify.
“Tacit cooperation with Beijing on [the] maritime island dispute is viewed by some in Taiwan as a way to say to mainland [China] ‘we’re showing good faith so don’t pressure us move ahead on steps toward reunification right now,’” Mr. Harold says.