international analysis and commentary

The domestic factors behind territorial disputes in Northeast Asia


Diplomatic tensions between China and Japan resurfaced once again at the 67th Session of the UN General Assembly. The claim to sovereignty over the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has sparked widespread protests and attracted the world’s attention over the last few weeks. The significance of the events is amplified by ongoing political transitions taking place in the region. At times of domestic political change, in order  to appear strong on strategic and vital matters governments can exploit nationalist fervor to weaken their counterparts; at least that seems the reasoning in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. Thus, many China analysts suspect a deliberate attempt by Japan to disrupt and destabilize the Chinese leadership at a time of profound change. Japan’s domestic critics instead, see the spark-up of territorial tensions as a failure of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration and the opportunity for Beijing and Seoul to galvanize on Japan’s weakness. Although the territorial tensions are indeed worrisome, once domestic political bickering has settled in all three capitals the risks of further escalations over territorial disputes will diminish significantly. When this will happen,  remains to be seen. 

None of the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea can afford to be seen as weak right now. With regard to sensitive nd unresolved  historical issues, extreme caution must be exercised especially in the next couple of months. In China Xi Jinping is expected to become President and Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) at the beginning of November. In South Korea a new president will be elected in December. In Japan instead, Prime Minister Noda has warded off a snap election and recently announced a reshuffling of its cabinet. Although key ministers such as those of foreign affairs and defense have retained their role, from an analysis of the newly appointed cabinet it appears as members were rewarded for their continuing support for Noda rather than for any significant policy initiative. On the opposing camp, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) named Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister as its president. It is unsure when the next general elections will be held in Japan but most commentators would agree that the present government is unlikely to last more than a few months. This background can help explain the somewhat ambiguous Japanese response to China’s territorial claims.

Beijing’s position is rather clear:at the UN recently Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi affirmed “there is no way of changing the historical fact that Japan stole the Diaoyu Islands.” Disputes between China and Japan over these islets flare up with a certain regularity; the last occasion was in September 2010. This time however, the disagreement reached an unprecedented spike. Tokyo’s governor, the outspoken nationalist Ishihara Shintaro, in April 2012 exacerbated the current crisis by announcing his intention to purchase the islands from private owners. The City of Tokyo has clearly no strategic interest in owing some remote islets in the East China Sea; nonetheless Ishihara seized the opportunity to criticize the national government for its weak response to Chinese sovereignty claims. By September the Noda cabinet had no choice but to acquire the islands from its private owners, a decision taken on September 11th. To complicate matters further, during the month of August Hong Kong activists landed on the Diaoyu/Senkaku and were detained by the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG), Japanese politicians followed suit by landing as well, while South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak became the first president to visit the contested Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. The diplomatic squabble between China and Japan was accompanied by widespread anti-Japanese protests in China.

To avert any further escalations, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had to travel to Tokyo and Beijing in mid-September to echo the appeal for calm, sound management and containment. He also pointed out that if attacked, all territory under Japanese administration would qualify for US defense assistance in the US-Japan security treaty.

Overall, the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue is a tangled web of international law and unresolved historical settlements fed by China’s power struggles within the CCP, Japan’s uncertain domestic politics, uneasy Japan-US relations and nationalist history-deniers. The likelihood of a direct military confrontation between China and Japan remains very low; however,disputes over oil and gas reserves, sea-lanes and fisheries are going to continue for the indefinite future. In the longer run, tensions between China and Japan might well shift from territorial frictions to problems of managing access to resources and military movements the area.

The role of statesmen is crucial when dealing with the pressures of  impulsive and deep-rooted nationalism. The new Presidents of China and South Korea will share a hard choice with Prime Minister Noda of Japan : accomodate the nationalist impulse in order to score short term political gains or limit its its impact on their nation’s foreign relations while searching for pragmatic compromise.