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One Year On, Island Dispute Still Roils Japan And China

Prime Minister Abe Attends Naval Fleet Review

On the anniversary of the day the government of Japan bought the Senkaku islands—a handful of small rocks in the East China Sea—from a private owner, relations between China and Japan still haven’t recovered. As the anniversary approached, a number of Chinese coast guard ships and an unidentified drone thought to belong to China lurked near the islands. Japan issued a stern warning in response: back off, China; we might station government officials on those islands.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary issued that warning yesterday, adding that “our country will never make a concession on the matter of sovereignty.” A coalition ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to walk back the warning, which China angrily rejected and analysts said could seriously escalate the dispute, but Abe himself has let it stand.

The territorial dispute has had a profound effect on the relationship between China and Japan. The impact extends further than cold diplomacy to the two countries’ once close business relationship. In October 2012, for example, just after Japan nationalized the disputed islands, Japanese carmakers’ share of new car sales in China plunged to just 9.1 percent from 20.9 percent two months earlier. By July of this year that share was still slowly recovering, up to 18.8 percent. According to a poll in August, an astonishing 93 percent of Chinese and 90 percent of Japanese have negative opinions of the other country.

Things don’t look likely to improve anytime soon. Several diplomatic efforts to discuss the territorial issue have come to nothing, while nationalism is rising in both countries, making it very difficult for Beijing or Tokyo to back down. The best we can hope for is the kind of behind-the-scenes agreement that was discussed in the spring, according to the Asahi Shimbun, in which a retired Japanese diplomat proposed to Chinese officials that the dispute would be “tabled” and both countries would acknowledge “in some way” that they have different positions on the issue. Alas, the Abe administration quickly squelched it: “We have to stick to the stance that no dispute exists at all,” he said. That same line appeared today, on the anniversary of the purchase of the Senkakus: “We will maintain absolutely the same position that no dispute [officially] exists,” Japan’s chief cabinet secretary told reporters.

[Japanese warships photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • stevewfromford

    90% of Japanese may well have “negative” feelings about China but I can tell you that ALL the Chinese I met in my extensive business travels in China absolutely HATE the Japanese and the government actively encourages this!
    I have never seen more hateful, jingoistic, stereotypes as those that the Chinese government TV regularly uses to depict Japanese. The leering, bow legged, twisted Japanese characters are the personification of evil and the common man has definitely gotten the message. If I were Japan I would waste no time in building a very strong military for I fear they will need it.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    What a missed opportunity this is for America. We should be organizing a powerful economic and military alliance, with all of the targets of Chinese belligerence and unjust territorial ambitions. The Chinese are driving them right into our arms, and the incompetent Obama administration does nothing. Without the Chinese, getting the Asians into an alliance would be like herding cats and likely impossible, but doing it right now would be easy, even for the mediocrities of this administration.

    • bpuharic

      Why should we militarize a potentially dangerous situation? This is just insane but very typical of the deranged right wing, for whom everything is about war.

      • fishaddict

        How’s that hopey changey thing going? I thought once the boy king takes the world stage and speaks, the world will be covered in a soothing blanket where race issues will be smoothed over, the earth will come back to normal temps, the arab spring will bloom flowers of peace, and the world will sing in perfect harmony. War is not the answer except when it is.

        • bpuharic

          Number of dead soldiers in wars started by Obama?


          Looks pretty good to me.

          And how many coffins came back to Dover courtesy of right wing foreign policy?


    • f1b0nacc1

      Yes and no.
      Certainly the US has an opportunity here to rally the various East Asian countries who face Chinese aggression (and lets be clear that this is exactly what it is), but the dynamics of the situation are a whole lot more complicated than they were with rise of NATO 60 years ago. You correctly point out that getting these states to work together will be like herding cats, but even worse, most of these cats actively dislike each other, often for good reason. The Japanese have never really come to terms with their WWII experience (and Abe isn’t the guy to get them to do it), and their neighbors (many of whom suffered mightily at the hands of the Japanese military) aren’t likely to forget this anytime soon. The underlying legitimacy of several of the governments in the area (notably Taiwan and Indonesia) is shaky at best, and ohers are engaged in low-level (or not so low level) counter-insurgency campaigns. Worse still many of these states are deeply corrupt (the Philipines comes most readily to mind, but they are hardly the only ones) and impoverished to boot. Finally, the notion of shared cross-national values (common enough in Western Europe in the founding days of NATO) simply isn’t operational here, which will make overcoming the mutual distrust (even undisguised loathing) much more difficult.
      None of this means that we shouldn’t pursue a broader military framework (and in fairness to Obama, he is doing just that), but it really isn’t all that easy to make it happen. Yes, I agree that we need to do more to help things along (the incompetence on display this week certainly didn’t help matters), but it is a lot more complex than might be immediately obvious

      • bpuharic

        Quite frankly, as well written an exposition of common sense as I’ve seen on WRM’s blog.

        Well done.

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