Domestic Inputs to the East Asian Island Dispute

COUNCILLOR COLUMN: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda admitted this week he miscalculated China’s response to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands purchase. For several days, Japanese businesses, products and individuals were targeted in China, leading to many closing their doors and signalling they would reconsider future investment in the mainland.

The island dispute has been a perennial issue between China and Japan, often deployed for domestic benefit to increase nationalism and distract or detract from social grievances during politically unstable periods. It is also often used alongside grievances to do with war memory, which is particularly virulent in between Korea, China and Japan. However, maritime access and territory is a fundamental strategic imperative for the major East Asian countries. East Asian SLOCS and maritime resources including potential energy deposits have only served to exacerbate long standing disputes, while domestic conditions in Korea, China and Japan have provided the political platform to advance these claims. To this end, maritime capability on all sides has increased significantly in the last decade.

The Japanese political landscape is very sensitive to public opinion and current approval ratings for both the DPJ and LDP parties are at historic lows. This has encouraged the emergence of independents and splinter groups, which although is not a new phenomenon (after all, the DPJ itself was a collection of LDP defectors and independents) is perhaps the latest factor among many in the resurgence of nationalism in Japan. Right-wing lawmakers have been pushing for revisions to Japan’s peace constitution for decades and the narrative of Japanese normalisation has been used to explain the legal skirting of Article 9, the conditions on the deployment of assets and progressive acquisition of more sophisticated and potentially offensive materiel. Shifting public opinion in support of the Self Defence Force, attractive and alternative political advocates of Japanese strategic interests and the fact Japan has a significant and sophisticated navy already (and is only getting bigger) have raised the stakes in territorial disputes, such as that of Senkaku/Diaoyu, as China and Korea seek to balance this power.

Meanwhile, China’s upcoming leadership transition scheduled for March 2013 has made the issue of domestic social stability to the fore. Xi Jinping, widely believed to be the next President, went missing from the public for a week. China’s social media-fuelled rumor mill went into overdrive at his absence, highlighting the Chinese communist party’s inability to properly handle its public relations. Given this domestic fragility, we can empathise with Noda’s miscalculation. China’s reaction to anti-Japanese protests following the purchase of the Senkakau/Diaoyu was disproportionately relaxed compared to past public demonstrations on the mainland. Noda would have expected China to crack down on the movements, emphasising the authority of the state. Beijing too probably underestimated the severity of the protests as low level, manageable ones had been witnessed for weeks prior.The use of force is generally determined locally and subject to parochial conditions and sensitivities, it was only until they got out of hand did Beijing step in to try de-escalate the level of demonstration.

These protests run the risk of creating an environment where a critical mass could turn their demonstrations against the government should Beijing intervene with disproportionate force. Second, as Noda recognised, the anti-Japanese sentiment had reached levels where businesses and expats were at risk. Noda knew China would use this to stir up nationalist fervour, but he did not anticipate China’s failure to keep things under control.

Economically, Japan and China have a symbiotic relationship, damaging Japanese business interests in China would jeopardize 4% of overseas FDI, whereas China is the top destination for Japanese exports which are otherwise declining to other markets due to economic conditions. Japan and China also both know that neither can really stand down on the issue. Japan, realistically, always controlled the islands and despite the US saying it will not take sides in the dispute, it considers the islands to be under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. In the long term, as East Asian maritime capability continues to grow, these otherwise manageable disputes will be harder to contain internationally, but also domestically.

William Hobart is a Councillor at the AIIA NSW.


One response to “Domestic Inputs to the East Asian Island Dispute

  1. Thanks for presenting this issue is such a level-headed and intellectual way. It helps us all frame matters more carefully.

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