The dispute between Japan and China over the barren rocky islands known as Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea owes its origins to the unfinished business of the Second World War. At the end of the war, the United States dispossessed Japan of most of its overseas island territories such as Taiwan, but curiously left untouched the territorial issue of some of the smaller islands. A reading of US intentions at that time would indicate that Japanese sovereignty would continue only over the four main Japanese islands, with the others being assigned to erstwhile owners. But US intentions were never given practical shape. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union marched in and captured the four northern islands in the Kuriles chain north of Hokkaido, the northern most main Japanese island. Left unclear and untouched were the Senkaku/Diaoyu group of islets that often submerge at high tide.
What is different now is the rising tide of nationalism in both Japan and China. Both vociferously lay claim to the islets and the hidden message is the sense of rivalry, strategic concern and future prospects. The present phase of the dispute erupted in April 2012 when the Mayor of Tokyo, facing a difficult political outcome, decided to up the ante by pledging to ‘buy’ the islands. He thereby hoped to refurbish his nationalist credentials. The feelings and attitude of the Japanese people towards China began to change sometime from 2010 onwards when they realised that China had eclipsed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy. Confident of its newly acquired status, China also began to adopt a more hard line approach to maritime disputes. This became evident when Japan arrested a Chinese fishing boat and its crew near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, but was forced to back down and release them when China threatened to cut the export to Japan of ‘rare earths’—a vital mineral in the manufacture of hi-tech items. On a strategic level, concerns about China's rising military and economic power have prompted Japan to broaden its foreign policy options by engaging other Asia-Pacific countries and even India, while strengthening its own defence capabilities and stepping up security co-operation with the US. In forums such as ASEAN, Japan has tried to encourage other countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to move in tandem to oppose Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
On the other hand, Chinese nationalists see such Japanese moves as willingness to second US efforts to contain China's rise and expand US presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan is seen as the fulcrum or the pivot on which the US hopes to reorient its policy of engaging once again with the region. China has also not taken kindly to Japanese efforts to bolster the anti-China sentiments of some ASEAN countries. Japan fully supports their intentions of dealing with China collectively rather than on an individual basis as China desires. And China is watching very carefully the evolving Indo-Japanese strategic relationship.
The rise of nationalism in both Japan and China and the sovereignty issue over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea is a highly explosive mix, perhaps even more so than the South China Sea island and territorial disputes. Chinese nationalists often link present Japanese policies with atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the Japanese invasion of China in the Second World War. This is because the Chinese psyche is easily aroused and anti-Japanese feelings, though dormant, are never too far below the surface. Thus incidents surrounding these islands easily revive historical wounds, stir national pride and restrict diplomatic space for an equitable solution. On 16 August 2012 the Chinese newspaper Global Times, an affiliate of the People’s Daily, even went to the extent of publishing a photograph of a demonstrator on the disputed islands proudly holding the KMT Taiwanese flag! It would have been unthinkable and blasphemous just a few years ago.
It is obvious that neither China nor Japan desire a large-scale conflict, since both have nothing substantial to gain from such a conflict. Nevertheless, there is deepening pessimism on both sides over the prospects of a peaceful settlement to the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, primarily because of the harsh public sentiments that it has unleashed in both countries. Both governments are aware of the deep strategic mistrust that exists between the two countries. What is also adding fuel to this mistrust is the current domestic political turmoil in both countries. While the Japanese leadership is facing a fragmented and shifting political landscape, the Chinese leadership is in the midst of a once in a decade delicate power transfer. Neither country at this stage can be seen to be ‘soft,’ for it would adversely affect their political prospects. It is for this reason that both prefer to let the dispute simmer for the present, for it suits their respective political purposes. If Prime Minister Noda calls for early elections in Japan and manages to retain power against all odds and the Chinese leadership manages to successfully conclude their 18th Party Congress, there might be some hope that this dispute can be safely put aside. To find a resolution of the dispute at the present juncture when feelings are running high on both sides is indeed very problematical.