If you ask about the size of the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan), it’s only 1,700 acres – approximately 1/1,000,000 of the size of China and 1/60,000 of the size of Japan. Yet the dispute over these islands has tightened the tension between China and Japan dramatically for the past two months. Both sides claim indisputable sovereignty over the islands and have shown no sign of compromising.
Why, you may ask, are two big countries freaking out over these small islands?
“If you ask of the significance of the island itself – there’s none.” said Professor Avery Goldstein, a Penn professor focusing on Chinese politics and international security, on a panel on Diaoyu Islands held by the Philomathean Society on October 4th, “Behind the dispute is really what China’s rise means to its neighbor in the long run.”
From a broader perspective, Diaoyu Islands are just pieces on the larger chessboard in East China Sea. Indeed, territorial disputes mostly start with fishermen conflicts followed by governmental negotiation, such as the collision between Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese patrol boats near Diaoyu Islands in 2010. Yet further interaction between the governments involves more implication about the wider context of the two countries’ approaches to territorial dispute. Whatever the resolution of the Diaoyu Islands dispute would be, it would be likely to set precedence for other ocean and island issues with states stretching from Japan in South and East China Sea. Thus, China needs to strategically keep the context of other maritime interest in mind.
A larger implication of the islands brings our attention to the power structure in East Asia, where a potential break to the status quo might be tested. As China grows in its economic and military power, it seeks for changes to the rules and relationships that define the status quo, in which it must recognize the claims of Japan and other parties in the adjacent sea. Japan, on the other hand, has been greatly insecure by China’s rise and reacts to it by confronting on the Diaoyu Islands dispute. Such an implication of power balancing behind it is so strong that any conflict or compromise, as a sign of weakness, that might occur over these islands would be a threat to the status quo that will result in war.
Another explanation to the heated dispute is the intention of domestic political groups in both China and Japan to distract the people from domestic problems. In China, nationalism protests against Japanese occupation of those islands broke out in several major Chinese cities, causing great chaos and attention on the Sino-Japan relation. However, on the panel, Professor Yuhua Wang remained cautious about the claim that Chinese government uses these protests as a distraction to domestic problems and internal power struggle. On the contrary, he considers these protests outbursts of social inequality, and can be really dangerous for the government if turned the other way. Moreover, considering the close trading relation between China and Japan, the spillover effect from anti-Japanese product boycotts will also harm the economy of the two countries significantly.
Yet is this merely a bilateral contest within East Asia? Obviously not. The US-Japan alliance involves broader attention and interests. On October 27, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed that “the Senkakus [Diaoyu] fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security”. Yet on the other hand, in China Daily, China accused U.S. of planting a disruptive mine onto Sino-Japan relation and directed this conflict behind the stage, in order to destabilize and rebound to East Asia. No matter the U.S. is trying to stay neutral or taking its role as a rebound strategy, its involvement has also upgraded this territory dispute to a larger threat to the international security and global power distribution.
Will China introduce a change to the status quo, or try to maintain it and leave this minor issue to future generation? We shall wait and see.