China has despatched two naval vessels to the disputed area leading to speculations about escalation of the crisis.
The decision by the Japanese government to purchase three of the five Islands, called Shenkaku by Japanese and Diaoyu by Chinese, has animated Chinese nationalism unseen in decades.
While these islands claimed by Japan since 1985 and by China since 14th century are under the control of Japan, there has been a regular pattern of Sino-Japanese tension over ownership in recent years. The most recent one was sparked by some Chinese and Hong Kong protesters trying to reach these islands last month and their arrest and subsequent release by the Japanese coast guard.
However, the announcement of the Japanese cabinet to buy three of the five islands from Kurihara family has sparked widespread protest in China.
The Chinese government has reacted angrily at various levels. President Hu Jintao met Japanese prime minister on the sidelines of the APEC summit and asserted Chinese sovereignty, while asking Japan to realise the gravity of the situation and avoid making wrong decisions. Premier Wen Jiabao, on the other hand, proclaimed that China would “absolutely make no concession” on the sovereignty issue.
Chinese defence ministry issued a statement: “We are monitoring the development…and reserve the right to take necessary measures.”
Chinese media, including People’s Daily, China Daily, and Armed Forces Daily of the PLA have warned Japan of serious consequences. The nationalist paper Global Times has come out with an advice: “Over the Diaoyu issue, the Chinese public can conduct activities to defend the islands. Chinese fishing boats can carry out work there and its law enforcement vessels can conduct more extensive patrols…. Chinese military power can be reflected in waters around Diaoyu.”
Millions of web users too have expressed their rage against Tokyo’s decision to buy the disputed islands. The think tanks analysts are up in arms against Japan. Even the Chinese film actors have registered their disapproval. One Chinese actress actually abstained from a scheduled appearance in an award ceremony in Tokyo, while another matinee idol issued a strong statement against Japanese decision in Beijing.
This dispute has reopened old wounds. Memories of Japanese atrocities before and during World War II remain alive in Chinese minds, since they are part of the history text books all over China. In fact, while reacting to the current incident, China Daily and Shanghai Daily have also carried reports about victims of Japanese bombing during the war on Chongqing moving to the High Court against Japan for compensation and apology.
Why has Japan’s Noda administration taken such a decision to buy the disputed Islands in the face of strongest ever Chinese opposition? It is perhaps partly the outcome of domestic politics.
When Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara decided to buy these Islands from private Japanese owners and develop them, the Noda Government did not let it go from the control of the national government. According to some analysts, unlike Tokyo Governor, the Noda Administration has no plans to develop these islands. It was Governor Ishihara who put the national government into a difficult situation.
But the timing of such a decision is difficult to ascertain. Japan has been going through difficult times at home. The economic recession, recent nuclear accident, and post-Tsunami reconstruction challenges are daunting tasks before the administration of prime minister Yoshihiko Noda. Japan has had long standing territorial disputes with South Korea, Russia and China. Japanophobia in Southeast Asia has not disappeared yet more than six decades after the end of World War II.
China has despatched two naval vessels to the disputed area leading to speculations about escalation of the crisis. While the United States has cautiously warned both the countries of the negative consequences of their confrontation on regional economic growth in the midst of global economic downturn, it is aware of its limitations.
China is a robust economic partner of the US and Japan is the closest strategic ally. Recently, the Obama administration announced a new Asia Pacific strategy indicating shifting of its focus to the Pacific from the Atlantic. Sino-Japanese bilateral disputes and conflicting claims by many countries on the issue of sovereignty over several islands in South China Sea pose a serious challenge to the US policy in the region.
The challenge for the neighbouring countries appears to be more daunting. They are unlikely to take a position in the dispute between two strongest regional Pacific powers. Neither China nor Japan has regional allies that can openly take sides. Even Asean is not likely to take a position in view of its deep economic interest both in China and Japan. While several Asean members have claims over disputed islands in the South China Sea, they will most likely stay away from Sino-Japanese tussle.
None expects a major Sino-Japanese war erupting from this standoff, but its economic consequences in the dynamic Asia Pacific region cannot be ruled out. Moreover, a naval skirmish may lead to unexpected consequences.
(The writer is Tagore chair professor at Yunnan University, China)