In the 1970s China made its first official territorial claims over the Diaoyudao/Senkaku Islands, and since then the dispute has continuously affected the China-Japanese relationship, and occasionally triggered diplomatic crises between them, most of which were deescalated for the sake of their shared economic interests. However, the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain in the disputed waters by the Japanese Coast Guard in 2010, and then Japan’s efforts to nationalize the Islands made their bilateral relationship reach new lows.
The Chinese side vowed to maintain its routine patrols in the disputed waters to strengthen its sovereignty claims, while Japan responded with a firm determination to conduct its military buildups, enhance its defense cooperation with the Americans, and tried to build the Asian Arc of Democracy allegedly aimed at forming a balancing coalition against China.
What is more, Chinese assertiveness in the dispute alerted the United States and other players. America is worried about how China is going to project its expanding economic and military strengths. It sees China’s rising naval presence in the West Pacific and beyond as a test of its determination to maintain the regional status quo. If it does not respond with firm action, Washington believes, China may further challenge the US’ strategic interests. Beijing’s assertiveness hence contributed to the formation of the US’ rebalancing strategy, starting a strategic shift of the US’ China policy to a containment-oriented strategy.
The Turning Point
In November 2014, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Japanese national security adviser Shotaro Yachi reached a regarding the Sino-Japanese relationship. The fourth point stated: “The two sides have acknowledged that different positions exist between them regarding the tensions which have emerged in recent years over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and some waters in the East China Sea, and agreed to prevent the situation from aggravating through dialogue and consultation and establish crisis management mechanisms to avoid contingencies.”
Although the four-point consensus was not legally-binding, in the two Xi-Abe meetings in Beijing’s and Jakarta’s APEC summits in 2014 and 2015 respectively, the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to respecting the four-point consensus, making their rapprochement possible.
During Chinese Premier to Japan, the two countries also restored their dialogue in defense and regional security, political party and congressional exchanges, and free trade agreement negotiations. Specific achievements included: granting Japan a RMB Qualified Foreign Institutional Investors (RQFII) quota of RMB 200 billion (about USD 31.36 billion), a currency swap deal, building a cross-agency work mechanism for private sector cooperation, along with other deals in film industry and rare species protection.
The visit could have brought the two countries to a new era of friendship and cooperation after a decade of ups and downs. During his visit, Premier Li was received with warm and high-profile hospitality by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. wrote, “Chinese premier’s visit opens new chapter for China-Japan economic, trade ties.” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference: “It [the meeting] will advance bilateral amicable relations to the next stage through cooperation in every field.”
The current status quo is a coordinated contestation for disputed territories between China and Japan.
The political reconciliation has laid the foundation for a possible compromise between both countries on sensitive issues including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. The Defense Departments of both countries agreed to start operating a that aims at averting accidental clashes and avoiding military misunderstanding and misjudgment. In the negotiation process, Japan proposed excluding the territorial waters and airspace of Japan — including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands which are de facto controlled by Japan — under the liaison mechanism. Beijing worried that by excluding the territorial waters in the mechanism, it would appear to recognize Tokyo’s sovereignty over the disputed islands. Ultimately, the two countries refrained from specifying the geographical coverage of the liaison mechanism “in an apparent attempt to avoid further complicating the dispute.” The new mechanism was welcomed by the international community and will help both sides avoid miscommunication and misjudgment.
New Status Quo?
Project 2049, a US-based think tank, released a research report on China’s Diaoyu/Senkaku strategy in March 2018. The widely-cited report addressed the in the future, arguing that China may attempt to seize the Islands in a “short, sharp war” between 2020 and 2030. It highlighted the political importance of the territories for the Chinese Communist Party, the development of China’s strategic missile and naval strengths and comprehensive power, and its military and paramilitary doctrines.
Project 2049’s predictions are biased and overly pessimistic. A new status quo is already in formation despite the possibly continuous albeit coordinated low-intensity tensions that will persist into the future. Since 2016, China’s naval presence in the disputed waters has followed certain routine procedures and has become more predictable and professional, while the Japanese Coast Guard has also responded with self-restraint. With the new dialogue and crisis management mechanisms in effect, the risk of militarized conflict is temporarily limited.
Although Beijing has vowed to defend its territorial integrity, there is little possibility of military adventurism from Beijing in the dispute. Its economic agenda still prevails over other foreign policy objectives including the territorial issues; Beijing remains cautious about seizing lost territories that are under effective control by foreign countries in both the South China Sea and East China Sea.
On the strategic level, the US-Japan alliance has been in transition ever since President Donald Trump took office. His “American first” policy may push China and Japan to manage their differences and develop a stronger partnership in economics and regional politics. The strategic uncertainty and their shared interests may generate stronger incentives for them to manage the dispute.
The current status quo is a coordinated contestation for disputed territories between China and Japan. China maintains its routine presence in the disputed waters, while Japan has responded with close but professional naval and aerial surveillance. China has promised no official landings on the Islands, while Japan has promised not to utilize the Islands either for economic or military purposes. Furthermore, both sides have restrained their nationalist activists from landing on the Islands or mobilizing the public via other means.
A new status quo based on the coordinated contestation for disputed territories hence remains possible. However, such a status quo will be vulnerable to political hurdles and social distrust, which will continuously test the political wisdom of China’s and Japan’s leaders.