China-Japan conflict on the high seas

The Chinese-Japanese relations are moving rapidly into a downward spiral and there is a war brewing between the world’s No. 2 and No. 3 economies. And the United States, the world’s largest economy, is at last taking a side and showing its support for Tokyo in the escalating China-Japan conflict.

Speaking at a joint news conference with new Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington on Jan. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the waters around the disputed islands – Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese – in the East China Sea “are under the administration of Japan” and therefore protected under the 1960 U.S.-Japanese security treaty and the United States “opposes any unilateral actions to undermine Japanese authority” over these islands.

As Secretary Clinton was reassuring her Japanese counterpart America’s “treaty obligations,” U.S. F/A-18 warplanes and Japanese F-4 fighter jets have carried out joint air defense drills over the waters off the coast of Shikoku Islands.

In response, Beijing harshly criticized Washington’s position and made it clear that China “resolutely opposes” Secretary Clinton’s island remarks. China’s official Xinhua news agency called it “foolish” for Washington “to throw support behind Japan in Tokyo’s islands dispute with Beijing” and “this unbalanced position has betrayed its declared intention to stay neutral on the issue.”

Meanwhile, generals and admirals of China’s People’s Libration Army are busy in accusing the United States of using drills with Japan as practice for invasion and asserting that China can “comfortably defeat Japan in a war” and Beijing must “prepare for the very outcome that (the) United States (is) to become involved in the conflict.”

“To counter China’s growing assertiveness at sea, especially when it comes to the Senkaku islands,” Japan’s Kyodo News reports, “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is boosting defense spending since he took office in December. Japanese Defense Ministry has decided to increase overall defense spending to $54.3 billion, the first defense hike in a decade.”

As tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea is reaching a boiling point, Chinese and Japanese leaders are charting a course for confrontation and both nations are embarking on a fresh burst of nationalism.

“The extraordinary clash of nationalisms that has brought Japanese-Chinese relations to an unprecedented nadir over the past several months,” warns Ronald Dore of Japan Times, “the governing elites of both countries have done little to calm the flush of nationalist sentiments that have led to the current enmity.”

“The tide in Japan has shifted in the direction of nationalism,” writes Roberto Savio of Inter Press Service, “not only is Prime Minister Abe a hawk who has always minimized Japanese aggression in Asia, but he also wants to eliminate article 19 of the constitution, which forbids Japan from having an army for offensive purposes and commits the country to peace.”

“Rising nationalism in China,” according to Savio, “has very different roots. Xi Jinping, China’s new president, has much more power than in past transitions but knows well that the idea of communism is no longer vital and that he has to come up with some popular idea for rallying the people behind him. So he speaks about ‘fu xing,’ the idea of a ‘renewal.’ Xi’s speeches have mixed a vigorous military build-up and a muscular foreign policy. And it is during Xi’s tenure that the conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has flared up.”

To make things worse, many East and Southeast Asian countries have unresolved sovereignty issues and maritime disputes with China. In its new passport, China has printed a map of Asia which virtually claimed the entire South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam have refused to stamp the new Chinese passport and, on the eve of the Japanese elections in December, Manila declared that the Philippines would welcome a change of the Japanese constitution, allowing Tokyo once again to become a military power and this was from a major victim of Japanese invasion in the World War II.

As Beijing becomes increasingly assertive the high seas, Tokyo has made clear that it will not concede and will uphold its fundamental positions that the Senkaku Islands are an inherent territory of Japan. Now with the U.S. military “pivot” towards Asia and its support of Japan in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, stage is set for conflict and confrontation in East Asia.

Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.