Update: Sino-Japanese Tensions

October 26, 2012 • Blogs, Online Content, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 911


In the most recent development to unfold in the Sino-Japanese plot, two Japanese ministers, including opposition leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Shinzo Abe, poked and prodded the Chinese people after their visits to a controversial Tokyo war shrine last Wednesday afternoon. The Yasukuni Shrine is a symbol of Japanese militarism during the 20th century and reflects lingering bilateral animosity, stemming from Tokyo’s refusal to admit to the horrors committed by its military. Fourteen Japanese leaders, once convicted as war criminals, are honored at this shrine.

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is controversial to the Chinese as it honors 20th century Japanese militants. (jamesjustin/Flickr Creative Commons)

This renewal of tension is yet another tipping point in Sino-Japanese relations – earlier this fall, the Japanese government purchased the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, islands that Beijing also lays claim to. This set off a chain reaction of public protests across Chinese major cities; Japanese companies were even forced to temporarily suspend their Chinese operations. These small measures to irritate China are not insignificant. They are interspersed with signals of conciliation, leaving the waters of diplomatic negotiations murky.

Furthermore, leadership transitions are of note in both China and Japan, making it difficult to generalize about hawkish or conciliatory behavior on either side, since diplomacy currently consists of extensive calculations about both present and future leadership. The diversionary war theory posits that states pursue a more aggressive foreign policy when faced with domestic vulnerability. It seems as though this is what is occurring between the Chinese and the Japanese.

In fact, Abe’s newfound hawkish position is surprising, given his much less hostile stance on China in the past. In 2006, he was the first Japanese prime minister to pick Beijing as the first stop of foreign visits instead of the United States. Yet when considering the heated nationalism that has also overtaken the Japanese in reaction to the Senkakus, Abe’s insistence on keeping the islands in Japanese hands falls into the diversionary war line of reasoning.

But the main question on everyone’s minds is what Xi Jinping is going to bring to the table on November 8, the date of the Chinese leadership transition. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, Chinese people are more hostile towards rival nations than ever before. Will fresh leadership therefore adhere to the demands of the populace? Along this line of reasoning, China will react to internal turmoil with a continual display of hostility towards Japan. What this “hostility” will specifically entail is unclear. At the very least, China will most likely continue to send patrol boats to encroach on Japanese waters.

The theory of diversionary war cannot, however, serve to predict the future of Sino-Japanese relations on its own. It would fail to explain China’s history of regional cooperation in response to territorial disputes. More importantly, national interests – namely economic and balance of power interests – are at stake. On the one hand, China fears the loss of strategically significant territory. Admittedly, these islands are nothing but a cluster of rocks in the middle of the East China Sea, but control over this territory grants important access to fisherman and supposed untapped oil reserves. So while it is clearly in China’s best interest to fight for some level of sovereignty over the Diaoyus, a diplomatic shakeup between China and Japan would be an economic disaster. China is now Japan’s largest trading partner, and a prolonging of the territorial dispute will seriously jeopardize bilateral trade.

Chances are slim that a full-blow military escalation will occur. The question, therefore, is how long leaders on both sides will play the hard line and delay constructive diplomacy in order to save face.

Willa Frej ’13 is in Pierson College. She writes about China’s foreign policy as she works on her senior essay discussing the topic. Contact her at willa.frej@yale.edu.

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