China, Japan and the East China Sea


Obviously not just Europe is shaken by crisis – bad news also announce the sixth candidate to be saved from financial default, which is Slovenia – or the USA which is caught by debates relative to the intervention in Syria on the paradigm of the ‘red line’ which the Assad regime did not observe or the new political ‘Asian pivot’, as well as other heavyweights of the international system are in trouble. An example is the China-Japan tandem, which is in an almost permanent situation of conflict since the 19th Century, as the Chinese giant went through a less auspicious period of its own history since approximately half a century ago. These realities are doubtlessly symptoms of an unprecedented turbulence in the international relations since the end of the Cold War.

After several tense episodes in the East China Sea around the Seikaku/Dyaoyu islands, spread over decades, September 2012 marked the beginning of the most acute conflicting episode. When the Japanese government decided to purchase the respective islands from a private person, China erupted in an explosion of nationalist anti-Japanese frenzy, present in the posts on the net used by hundreds of millions as well as in the devastations of the offices of Japanese companies, and a high official of the USA rapidly toured the two states to quell the situation that had become critical. Especially as China is the process of replacing a generation of leaders with the present one for the next decade – a process also accompanied by inevitable internal political tensions -, Japan undergoes the calendar of the governmental change in Tokyo that would have forced a relaunch of the economic growth, the USA in the process of getting adapted to the new project ‘Asia pivot’ that started in January 2012. On the occasion of this new episode, China launched its first aircraft carrier – expression of an increasing military strength – the two sides, Chinese and Japanese, testing each other by acquiring enemy targets on their own military radars in the zone under dispute or by other means, while an European journalist present in Tokyo had talks with officials and then shakily wrote that plans of war are being devised here and there are some who consider that this is nearly the last moment for stopping the Chinese giant.
Early in May, tension in the East China Sea between the two sides amplified, instead of fading away, with the Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks being now replaced by another archipelago. On May 8, the Chinese official journal ‘People’s Daily’ questioned the status of the Okinawa island, part of the Ryukyu archipelago of the same sea region. The authors of the article – two Chinese experts – described the historic evolution of this archipelago – where Okinawa is the biggest island, inhabited by nearly 1.5 million Japanese and which hosts US military forces (25,000 troops) – showing that its statute is uncertain, thus challenging the legitimacy of the Japanese sovereignty. The respective article sparked a strong protest in Japan, with PM Shinzo Abe rejecting China’s ‘inappropriate claim’. Meanwhile, the USA, linked to Japan through a security treaty, expressed through the State Department support for the position of the Nippon government. The Chinese official refused to state that Ryukyu are part of Japan and mentioned that Senkaku/Dyaoyu – situated west of Okinawa “are China’s inherent territory”. Worth mentioning, since the very beginning the Chinese official tried to link the Ryukyu issue with the Senkaku/Dyaoyu dossier, trying to create an ascendant upon the latter dossier towards the Japanese side. Several days later, another article published by the Chinese press made even clearer the Chinese intention. On May 11, the same newspaper, under the significant title ‘Ryukyu issue offers leverage to China’ further clarified the Chinese position. It reads that, unlike Dyaoyu, islands which historically were part of China, the Ryukyu islands were a kingdom that paid tribute to China and ‘It’s not that China wants to “recover” the Ryukyu islands, but it is able to negate the islets’ current status’. The newspapers also warns: “If Japan ultimately chooses antagonism with China, Beijing should consider changing its current stance and revisit the Ryukyu issue as an unsolved historical problem.” The warning is supplemented by the detailing of a strategy for opening the Ryukyu dossier. A first step should be launching a public debate on the status of these islands, which should include studies made by various organisations without involving authorities; second, Beijing should decide, depending on the attitude of Japan, when it will publicly and formally open the contentious dossier (if Tokyo does not take a conflicting stance, it might be kept frozen). In a third phase of this imagined strategy, if Japan decides on ‘sabotaging China’s rise’, Beijing can support the pro-independence forces of Ryukyu, thus casting a shadow over the territorial integrity of the Nippon state. ”This is a fair game’, reads the article. And, to be even clearer, the article mentions that, if Japan chooses the way of confrontation, then it commits itself to a long-term rivalry with China in the 21st Century, when time works for Beijing. And China would not fear, in this context, a possible encouraging of separatism in the Chinese state, because it is countered by the significant economic increase of the country. It is worth mentioning that signs of a pro-independence movement already exist in the Ryukyu archipelago, but they are insignificant. In polls, the majority of Okinawa inhabitants identify themselves as Japanese or adopt a double identity, and those who favour independence represent only a small share of the population. But such a movement can be boosted, a possibility which obviously supports the opinion expressed by the Chinese newspaper (significantly, the article is not signed, unlike the previous).
China thus warns Japan that it depends on the behaviour of Nippon officials if ‘Pandora’s box’ is opened in the East China Sea. One cannot stop noticing in the recent round of the Chino-Japanese contentious in this sea an impressive reality, originating in history and hidden until now by old maps and documents which nobody read for a long time: many of the present-day geopolitical realities in the region are decided in the modern era, as older documents evince an effective hegemony or rule of China in much of the areal. China’s economic growth makes it sure enough to publish forgotten historic realities, maybe disputed ones, and affirm that a hostile attitude which will slow or stop its development and the annihilation of the consequences of a period of historic setback may push it towards revisionism. It is a question with unclear answer if it is the attitude of the Chinese official or it is, in its turn, worried about the increase of a nationalist trend inside the country, which feeds of the eventual hostility of neighbours from the conscience of the huge strength of the country recovered during the last decades.