December 26, 2013 6:33 pm

Shadow boxing in the western Pacific

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The stand-off between China and Japan is worrying

In 2013, the dispute between China and Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea only got worse. It is true that the rhetoric, shrill at the start of the year, did not escalate and – at times – abated. It is true too that sales of Japanese goods in China, including cars, recovered strongly in the second half, after a state-condoned boycott earlier in the year.

But in November, Beijing wrongfooted Tokyo when it declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ), covering airspace over the disputed islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. Taiwan also claims the islands. And, this week, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has offended Beijing by paying tribute at the Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead – including war criminals convicted for offences in China.

Even before this autumn, Beijing had greatly increased the number of ships and aircraft circling the islands. China’s strategy seems clear. It wants to establish its own record of administrative presence in order to contest Japan’s longstanding claim that it has sole administrative control. Much to Beijing’s frustration, Tokyo does not even admit the sovereignty of the islands is in dispute, a legal and diplomatic position that appears to be getting less tenable with each passing day.

Why has this issue caught fire? Beijing blames Japan for “nationalising” the islands in 2012, a decision Tokyo said it took to head off an attempt by a rightwing Japanese politician to buy and develop the islands. Beijing does not accept that argument. Rather it accuses Tokyo of changing the status quo, bringing years of uneasy equilibrium to an end.

Unhelpfully, Tokyo denies there was ever a deal to shelve the dispute in the 1970s. Its hard-to-defend official position is that China has recognised Japan’s sovereignty since 1895 when it first incorporated the islands into its territory. Both sides are shouting. Neither is listening. The stand-off is dangerous. The possibility of an accident or a deliberate provocation by a hothead on the ground (or in the air, or at sea) is real. Nor, if that happened, can escalation be ruled out given that both countries have hawkish leaders and populations in no mood to make concessions.

Worryingly, Beijing seems bent on testing US commitment to defend the islands, which Washington has reiterated come under the provisions of the US-Japan security treaty. Beijing wonders whether the US would really risk American lives for a few rocks.

For now, its policy of driving a wedge between Japan and the US appears to be working. Washington refused to follow Tokyo’s policy of ignoring China’s ADIZ. It instructed its airlines to obey new rules to notify Beijing when their aircrafts enter the contested zone.

Beijing, then, has scored some successes in 2013. The danger is that it will pursue its campaign in 2014. That could push events out of control. How to avoid this? Three things could be done. Japan could be more honest by conceding that – its assertion of sovereignty notwithstanding – it acknowledges the 1970s’ agreement to shelve the dispute. It should push for a return to the status quo ante. For its part, China could propose that the dispute be put to the International Court of Justice – and promise to abide by its ruling.

Sadly, neither of the above is plausible. Both sides claim absolute moral authority and neither trusts the other. In these circumstances, the least that can be done is to establish a hotline between the countries’ leaders so that any accident does not spin into crisis. The two leaders should also agree to meet without conditions. Here Xi Jinping, China’s president, is at fault. If he cannot even bring himself to clap eyes on Mr Abe, there really is no hope for resolution absent the unthinkable: military conflict.

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