China-Japan island dispute opens door to misunderstandings

Stubbornness over conflicting claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea holds out the prospect of competing maritime patrols and continued tensions, raising the risk of an incident.

Kyodo News/AP/File
A Chinese ship and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel sail near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

After five months of naval maneuvering around a group of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, Japan and China remain deadlocked in a potentially disastrous game of chicken over their rival territorial claims.

Few on either side of the dispute are predicting a face-saving solution will appear anytime soon that might calm the tensions between the world's second- and third-largest economies and avert the risk of outright hostilities.

Both governments blame each other for the deepening crisis and promise to stand firm.

"I don't see a way out," says Akihisa Nagashima, a former deputy Japanese Defense minister. "It is very unfortunate, but we do not have a solution."

"It will be very hard for China's new leaders to give up their political stand on the Diaoyu islands," says Sun Zhe, who teaches international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, using the Chinese name for the islands known in Japan as the Senkaku.

The two countries, Professor Sun worries, "may be falling into a deep trap and a black hole of misperceptions that create miscalculations."

The dispute, which has seen Chinese naval vessels "lock on" their missile-guiding radars to a Japanese ship and helicopter, and prompted Japan to scramble F-15 fighters to chase a Chinese plane flying over the disputed waters, erupted this past September.

Saying that it wanted to keep three of the privately owned but Japanese-administered islands out of the hands of a nationalist firebrand who was seeking to buy them, the Japanese government bought the islands itself.

Beijing charged that this move violated a longstanding tacit agreement not to change the islands' status and began dispatching marine surveillance ships, naval vessels, and planes into the disputed territory in order to undermine Japan's administration.

Beijing's current goal, according to Chinese analysts and Japanese officials who have spoken with their Chinese counterparts, is to force Tokyo into acknowledging that a territorial dispute exists.

This Japan resolutely refuses to do, insisting that there is no question about who the islands belong to. China only began voicing a claim in the 1970s, when studies suggested that oil and gas deposits might be found near the islands, Japan argues.

Japan also claims to be standing up to Chinese assertiveness in a manner that should stiffen the resolve of other countries locked in territorial disputes with China, such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

"If we give up, the whole of Asia could be controlled by this lawless game," says one senior Japanese official. "We have to stand very firmly against the possibility that the whole area might fall under Chinese rule."

Shinzo Abe, Japan's new prime minister, was elected in December partly on pledges to firmly defend the islands. His refusal to acknowledge that China claims them enjoys support across the Japanese political spectrum, as far left as the Communist Party.

With crucial elections to the upper house of parliament due in July, Mr. Abe cannot appear weak in the face of China's maritime intrusions.

Nor can Xi Jinping, who is due to become China's president in early March. Since becoming head of the ruling Communist Party last November, Mr. Xi has made frequent visits to military units, and until he has fully established himself as the man in charge, he is not expected to show flexibility on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue.

Such stubbornness on both sides holds out the prospect of competing maritime patrols and continued tensions, raising the risk of an incident.

Eventually, hopes the senior Japanese diplomat, "Xi will rethink the costs and benefits of this crisis and realize that it is not good to harbor bad relations" between countries tied by $330 billion worth of trade each year.

But Xi's calculation, in light of angry Chinese public opinion, may not come out in Japan's favor. For the time being, says one Western diplomat in Tokyo, "the best we can hope for is that they can cauterize this [territorial crisis] and keep it from expanding into other areas of the relationship."

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