The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands continue to be a cause of contestation for Sino-Japanese relations, and a source of tension for the Asia-Pacific region more broadly. To learn more about maritime relations between China and Japan, we speak to CIGI Research Fellow James Manicom. He is the author of a new book, Bridging Troubled Waters: China, Japan, and Maritime Order in the East China Sea (Georgetown University Press, 2014).
CIGI: Tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands appeared to reach fever pitch in the past two years, yet the dispute never really led to decisive action by either side — perhaps contrary to what media anticipated. How have both sides been able to avoid an escalation? Are there any governance mechanisms in place that either contribute to or help resolve the tension?
James Manicom: I think the story of my new book is very much that the islands have always been an issue between China and Japan, ever since they normalized the relationship in the early 1970s. So it certainly did not come out of nowhere, although I recognize that for the media it is a relatively new issue. There were tensions around the islands in 1996, when riots and protests broke out. And tensions rose in 2004, when Chinese citizens landed on the islands. But tensions have never been at the scale that we see today; for a long time, both countries were very good at getting along, and at the same time, the issue just did not have the political prominence that it does now.
Regrettably, over the last 30 years Sino-Japanese relations have become much worse, and it goes from top to bottom: institutionally, economically and at the popular level, which is probably where it is most important. It is now socially acceptable for a Japanese leader to say cruel things about China and vice versa. Being anti-China or anti-Japan is popular in both countries.
In my book, I trace how the two countries avoided conflict over the actual issue — how they have ignored and downplayed it, and how they have pushed it off into the future. In the absence of any effort to try to decide who owns them — something that neither side wants to do because neither side wants to lose — this is the next best option.
Around the islands, there are other issues — like resource development, marine research, fisheries and military exercises. Although there are not many regional governance mechanisms with much pull in the situation, both sides have certainly used the institutions available to them, like the Law of the Sea, and good old-fashioned diplomacy to arrive at arrangements and manage tensions.
In fact, the main storyline of my new book is that the dispute is not a story of conflict or war. It is actually a story of cooperation, albeit limited cooperation.
CIGI: What is really at stake over the islands? Is a resolution possible?
Manicom: The islands themselves — the grand total of all five and three rocks — are 5 km2. No one lives on them. One family tried for a while, but you cannot live there without having water and other goods imported. There is no value to the islands themselves, but they are related to the East China Sea and who gets what’s there. Because the Law of the Sea allows you to make claims from coastlines and islands, sovereignty over the islands (in the Japanese argument) would allow Japan to push its line further toward China and would give it a bigger slice of the ocean. This matters because when it comes to fish, resources and military activities, countries in East Asia put a lot of stock into who gets to control what. So in material sense, the East China Sea is important. Both Japan and China, for example, are global fishery powers.
As for whether or not a resolution is possible, I am pessimistic that we will ever see a situation where we decide who owns the islands and who gets more in the East China Sea. Both countries are doing a good job of making claims to the islands by drawing on law and history. But in the short term, I do not think that either leadership will see much benefit from resolving the dispute. As I said earlier, this is a dispute about other issues. And it is about the fact that the Chinese people have been fed a diet of anti-Japanese propaganda since Tiananmen Square in 1989, which builds on existing memories of persecution at the hands of the Japanese.
In Japan, I think the country was prepared to look the other way for a long time while China rose and became more prominent and active. But I think after the two recent incidents related to the dispute, one in 2010 and one in 2012, the average Japanese citizen grew tired of having to walk softly in the face of Chinese bravado. Particularly under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, you have the sense that Japan is back — it is a strong country and can be assertive. This is a popular narrative in Japan, and Abe is in no position to compromise it. Being anti-China and anti-Japan is popular in both countries, and that is really complicating the issue and stands in the way of resolution.
CIGI: Is there a generational component to this current sentiment?
Manicom: The generational change has a number of effects. In Japan, young citizens are less likely to feel sorry for the crimes that Japan committed in World War II. At a time when East Asian countries want Japan to apologize more, younger Japanese citizens say they just do not care, that those events happened 60 years ago and they have grown up with a pacifist Japan. They have no memory of an imperial Japan trying to conquer East Asia.
The other way generational change matters is that the generation that normalized relations between China and Japan in the 1970s is gone. At that time, you had Japanese policy makers who stayed in China and spoke Chinese, and vice versa — there were really good links. The China bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan used to be called the China school because it advocated on behalf of pro-China policies. The old links of people who grew up knowing the other country are all gone. In part this is because the world is more global and your neighbours are less important than, say, partners in Africa.
CIGI: What lessons does this case teach us about diplomacy? Is there a model here for other situations?
Manicom: In the book, one thing that comes up is that if you have good working relationships at the bureaucratic level, you can do an awful lot. China and Japan have been very good at negotiating in the past. These are, of course, very sensitive issues. At the bare minimum, basic dispute management took place at the bureaucratic, not political, level. The other lesson is that as tensions have gotten worse, it has been because of the interference of politics and political leaders that are beholden — to their constituencies — to favour a hard anti-China or anti-Japan line. As a corollary of that, it is clear that both countries know how to get along. They have done it for 30 years, and everyone knows what needs to be done with regard to the islands. The issue is that neither side has political leadership willing to incur the cost of domestic resistance.
At the end of the day, these islands and the maritime space around them can be shared. In the last chapter of my book, I discuss how each issue is not mutually exclusive. You can share ocean space; it is not impossible. But regrettably, the fact that both China and Japan would incur domestic political costs keeps this dispute active.
CIGI: What are the security implications outside of the region if this event escalates further?
Manicom: The security implications are very serious. In the past, the United States did not want to embolden their alliance benefactor, but in the last four years they have made it clear to China that the islands are considered part of Japan, since they are administered by Japan. This is a stance China does not appreciate. But if China were to try and take back the islands, it would activate the US-Japan security treaty and that, if it goes the distance, could escalate into nuclear war.
The real risk of escalation is accidents at sea, because the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard are more active than ever before. What you now have is a number of ships, in a very small ocean, that cannot talk to each other (because they choose not to) and, in some cases, they engage in deliberate brinkmanship to try to scare the other one. For example, in January 2013, a Chinese destroyer painted a Japanese ship with its fire-control radar and the latter had no idea if it was being fired on or needed to fire back. That is how close they came, and it was only a year ago. The problem with those incidents is that they can escalate very quickly because you have incomplete information as to who has done what and why. This is what most policy makers are worried about right now, which is why it is so important that China and Japan negotiate or conclude some kind of agreement as to how they are going to communicate at sea and what different signals mean. Actually, this has already been negotiated; it’s sitting and waiting to be signed by the political leadership on both sides to implement it.