The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Japan and China at Each Other's Throats in Island Dispute

The war of words and water cannons in the East China Sea took a dramatic turn this week when news broke that a Chinese military vessel locked its fire control radar on a Japanese ship and helicopter. Prominent Japanese officials blasted the move as an unprovoked escalation, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying ”it was a unilateral, provocative act and extremely regrettable.”

China placed all the blame on Japan, however. Tokyo “exaggerate[s] these kinds of incidents,” read an editorial in the Communist Party-run Global Times. “It’s Japan itself that is driving the Diaoyu dispute in the direction of a possible military clash,” the editorial continued. “If Japan was a reasonable nation, the Diaoyu Islands dispute wouldn’t have become as tense as it is now.” An even more hot-headed response appeared in Japanese on the website of the People’s Daily, as the WSJ reports:

Japanese media reported that the city of Ishigaki requested earlier this week that the government seek to have the islands included in a larger request to UNESCO for a world heritage listing. Ishigaki includes the disputed islands as part of its jurisdiction.

If Japan were to include the islands in the request “it is highly likely that this would form another hot coal” in the dispute, the editorial reads. It also warns of Japan’s mounting right-wing sentiment, saying that, considering its wartime past, Japan is “digging a smelly hole for to bury itself alive in.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. is growing tired of Chinese naval expansion, a sentiment forcefully expressed by Captain James Fanell. The top naval intelligence officer in the Pacific bluntly told an audience at a conference that China displays “aggression” and “bullies adversaries” and has become a “principal threat” to U.S. naval hegemony in the Pacific. “Make no mistake,” he concluded, “the PRC navy is focused on war at sea.”

Complicating matters, as Gideon Rachman writes in the FT, is the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. This treaty is meant to reassure and defend Japan from aggressors, “but there is also a danger that it might tempt Japanese politicians to take unnecessary risks…. Some Japan-watchers worry that nationalists in the government may be tempted to confront China now—before the gap in power between the two nations grows too large, and while the US is still the dominant military force in the Pacific.” The ambiguous language in Article V of the treaty, which states that Japan and the U.S. must “act to meet the common danger,” could tempt China to call America’s bluff, says Rachman.

The plot thickens in Asia’s Game of Thrones.

Published on February 7, 2013 8:00 am