Concerns mount as Japan, China island dispute shows no sign of easing

Twelve Chinese vessels have moved to the waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea to patrol and enforce the law, according to Chinese state media.

An aerial photo shows the Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 (l.) cruising as a Japan Coast Guard ship Ishigaki sails near Uotsuri island, one of the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea, September 14.

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Tensions are mounting over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, just one day after the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 occupation of China. Twelve Chinese vessels reportedly arrived in the waters around the islands today, and some fear there is potential of pushing rhetoric to the next level between China and Japan, which have two of the best-equipped militaries in the region.

On Sunday, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that the territorial dispute could lead to a “violent conflict.” In comments made on his way to a weeklong trip to the Asia-Pacific region, he told reporters:

I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict.

The Chinese vessels – a combination of fishing patrol boats and surveillance ships – were reportedly sent to the Diaoyu islands, as the Chinese refer to the territory, or Senkaku, as they are known in Japan, in order to “conduct patrol and law enforcement,” reports China’s state media outlet, the People’s Daily. The first boats began to arrive yesterday afternoon. “This is the largest marine patrol in China’s history,” the paper wrote.

This follows a rise in anti-Japanese protests, which have spread to close to 100 Chinese cities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. But the Japanese government has thus far been cautious in how it has dealt with the dispute, in part perhaps because of proximity of the flareup to the Sept. 18 anniversary of Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria, something that spurs protests annually, island disputes aside.

In an opinion piece, Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek writes that the tiny islets that are in dispute don't appear to be worthy of an international incident. But, he argues, this flareup between China and Japan feels different than past face-offs, like the sweeping 2005 protests over Japanese school textbooks downplaying Japan's role in World War II.

“The Japanese call them the Senkaku Islands, the Chinese refer to them as Diaoyu. Let me suggest a more appropriate name: Goat Islands. Goats are all you will find on the cluster of uninhabited rocks over which Japanese and Chinese seem ready to go to war,” writes Mr. Pesek.

He continues:

Diplomats in Tokyo and Beijing … are blaming one another over a mushrooming international crisis that has U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta worried about a military “blowup,” the last thing the world needs right now.

That isn’t as hyperbolic as it might sound. It is easy to envision a couple of Japanese businessmen being dragged from their corporate offices in Shanghai and beaten, or even killed, by an angry mob. Things could get out of hand very quickly, which explains why Panasonic Corp. (6752) and Canon Inc. are shutting Chinese plants. That goes, too, for naval ships near the disputed islands. Miscalculations, collisions and gunfire that lead to broader armed conflict aren’t hard to imagine. 

Japan and China should end this foolish row now.

Pesek describes the “spike in tensions” as a way to deflect attention from domestic politics, and notes that this latest clash puts a trade relationship of more than $340 billion between China and Japan at risk.

China has faced a succession of political embarrassments this year, including the Bo Xilai scandal and bad economic news.

But nationalism in both China and Japan has not helped the issue, with the Chinese government reportedly organizing and encouraging protests at home. An article by the Globe and Mail yesterday describes people patiently waiting their turn to protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing as though they were “waiting to go on a carnival ride”:

“Declare war on Japan!” some yelled in fury over the island dispute that continues to escalate. “Japan! Apologize!” others screamed, their anger based in unaddressed grievances from the Second World War, top of mind on the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria. A line of Riot police walked in front of and behind each group of 100, preventing them from ever forming a mass that couldn’t easily be controlled.

It was a day of orchestrated and, so far, symbolic confrontation in China and at sea.

And others argue that Japan did not help stamp out tensions when it purchased the islands from a private owner, something China’s apparent leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping called a farce today.

"Japan should rein in its behavior and stop any words and acts that undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Mr. Xi said in a meeting with visiting Defense Secretary Panetta today, according to Xinhua news agency

The Wall Street Journal warns that it is a mistake to underestimate the power of nationalism in China.

As scholar Guo Yingjie has written, modern China harbors two strains of nationalism. The cultural variety emphasizes the preservation of traditions and values that are seen as the essence of being Chinese. The political variety focuses on the creation of a strong state capable of defending its sovereignty, and sees traditional culture as a drag on development.

The clash between these two visions of China has created an identity crisis, Mr. Guo believes, as well as a love-hate relationship with foreign cultures.… So far China has not sought to overturn the international status quo as the Soviet Union did, but this new super-nationalism could change that.

Ultimately, China will pay a price for putting its nationalist impulses ahead of its national interest in cultivating foreign trade and investment and acquiring a reputation as a stable, rational and trustworthy power. The question is, how high will the price have to go—and who else will have to share in paying it—if Chinese leaders don't put their worst impulses in check.

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