International relations, Law | Asia, East Asia

11 January 2016

A bitter history is behind the building tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, writes Amrita Jash.

The trouble over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea is at the heart of constrained China-Japan relations. Having been shelved by both China and Japan during the Cold War to maintain the territorial status-quo, the sovereignty dispute over the islands gained momentum with the turn of the 21st Century, making it the most divisive factor in China-Japan relations and also one of the potential hotspots for tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

The tensions between China and Japan over the eight small, uninhabited, barren islands has been mainly argued from a realist perspective, where the clash of sovereignty is seen as an interplay of material forces. That is, the islands possess rich stocks of hydrocarbons and fisheries, and compounded with the East China Sea as an important trade route, make the islands a core national interest for both China and Japan.

The liberal perspective suggests that burgeoning economic engagement between China and Japan has provided some stability to the brimming tensions. But this existing paradox of ‘hot economics, cold politics’ provides a limited understanding of China’s reactions towards Japan over the islands. The strategic rationale of maritime security and economic interests fails to explain China’s behaviour in the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.

To understand the unresolved nature of the island dispute one needs to go beyond the rational. The substance of this territorial conflict is neither the economic nor the strategic value of the islands, but rather their emotional significance for China that defies rational calculation. Here the assumption is that Chinese perceptions born out of historical memories of mistrust and animosity (Japanese imperialist aggression) contribute to the present threat, that get translated directly into strong foreign policy behaviour towards Japan. That is, hidden agendas dictate how one sees the other.

More on this: Building your own islands and the letter of the law | Marina Tsirbas

What explains China’s assertive behaviour is its identity vis-a-vis Japan, which is deeply embedded in historical memories – dominated by a sense of inferiority and the humiliation suffered during Japan’s invasion of China. The strong sentimental rhetoric of a ‘victimised China’ in the hands of an ‘aggressive Japan’ dominates the Chinese psyche and significantly regulates China’s behaviour towards Japan. Casting Japan as an aggressor creates misunderstanding and even introduces threat into China’s relations with Japan. Historical insecurity means China assumes a victim identity (for example revision of history textbooks, Japanese officials visit to Yasukuni Shrine, comfort women issues, and others) with Japan as the oppressor. This intensifies the security dynamics, risking escalating tension between China and Japan.

These tensions make the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands a testing issue between China and Japan and their clash of identities. This makes the dispute more fragile and significantly impedes the resolution process.

In China, the government’s hawkish position is complemented by anti-Japan public opinion. Examples can be found in crucial instances, such as the 2010 case of a Chinese fishing boat’s collision with Japanese vessels near the disputed islands, and the 2012 nationalisation of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands by the Japanese government, which raised China’s anti-Japanese sentiments to a new high.

This strong nationalist hardline position triggered China’s strong unilateral posture of establishing an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in 2013. National identity is a key factor in provoking tensions in the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands row.

In this process of protracted grievances, this territorial dispute is an immediate flashpoint that lies at the centre of the troubled Sino-Japanese relationship. The dispute has gone beyond the security, economic and political challenges based on complex historical memories that significantly inform China’s foreign policy towards Japan. It is now an identity-based conflict in which the two nations’ divergent perceptions, attitudes and intentions are the dominant forces. Political and economic factors of sovereignty and access to resources stand valid, but at the root of the tensions is history, and the conflict of national identity between China and Japan. Any tension over the islands activates China’s memories of a tragic past, and affirms its victim identity vis-a-vis an aggressor Japan.

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One Response

  1. Ahcai says:

    More or less correct but not 100% accurate. Diaoyu Islands fall clearly into the scope drawn in Cairo Declaration and later the Potzdam Announcement in that all the lands that Japan had caught in hands out of greedy must be returned to their original owners. To compromise on Diaoyu means we still allow Japan to benefit from its military past. That’s something that no Chinese today can tolerate.

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Jash, Amrita. 2017. "Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands Dispute: Identity Versus Territory - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.