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September 30, 2022

Japan, China playing dangerous game

The standoff in the East China Sea over a handful of small islands is occurring amid political transition in China and Japan, and both countries are seemingly dug in. Can either side dial down the rhetoric?The 40th anniversary of the normalization of relations between China and Japan will be marked on September 29 but there seems little to celebrate, CNN reports.The territorial dispute between Japan and China over the rocky outcrops, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China, has escalated beyond expectations as both governments have upped the ante and domestic politics constrains room for maneuver.As bad as it seems now, it was also quite perilous in 2010 after a Japanese Coast Guard arrested the crew of a fishing trawler that rammed them in the waters near the disputed rocks. This arrest sparked widespread angry protests and attacks on Japanese businesses in China.After Beijing withheld exports of rare earth metals vital to Japanese industry, Tokyo capitulated by releasing the crew and captain. This incident inflamed lingering resentments and stoked mutual suspicions.In this most recent standoff, the saber-rattling has grown more ominous against the backdrop of a political transition in Beijing and leadership elections in Japan’s two main parties. In this context, it is difficult for either side to dial down the rhetoric. Contenders for party presidency in Japan are all taking a hardline, one that will fuel more tensions.Meanwhile, Beijing is getting ready to pass the baton of leadership at a time when the economy is slowing and there is growing discontent with corruption, nepotism and income disparities. Pundits expect Beijing to clamp down on the demonstrations before they morph into anti-government protests.The temptation of patriotic blustering is hard for either side to resist, but in this dangerous game of brinksmanship both countries have a lot to lose. There is a serious risk of miscalculation on both sides that could cause this scrap to spiral out of control. It doesn’t take much to make a martyr and once there is blood in the water, stability in Asia is at risk. There is little to be gained from aggravating a dispute that has now assumed symbolic importance as a test of wills.Tokyo-Beijing relations are fragile and in this case the volatile combination of territorial disputes, competition for seabed resources, strategic ambitions, nationalism and unresolved historical grievances have elevated these remote outcrops into the focal point for longstanding grievances in China and growing anxieties in Japan.The rapid rise of China has lead to a tectonic shift in East Asian geopolitics and the decline of Japanese influence. This abrupt and far-reaching shift in the balance of power is destabilizing because it challenges the status quo. The rising tide of Chinese nationalism finds a familiar and handy target in Japan. At the same time, Japanese conservatives do their nation no favors by repeated provocations with their Asian neighbors.

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