Confrontation or Appeasement in the Senkakus?

During the morning of January 21st, three China Marine Surveillance vessels—the Haijian 23, 46, and 137—entered the territorial waters of Japan north of Kubajima, one of the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea. This followed an intrusion by the Haijian 23 and two sister vessels during the preceding Saturday, also in the morning.

The incursion on the 21st was the 24th such incident since September, when Tokyo purchased three of the five barren islands, administered as part of its Okinawa Prefecture, from their Japanese owners (from whom it had previously been renting). China, Japan, and Taiwan all dispute the sovereignty of these East China Sea outcroppings, which have in fact been controlled by Tokyo since 1972, when Washington returned administration of them to Japan (Beijing now scolds America for doing so). Until 1971, the People’s Republic effectively acknowledged that the islands were Japanese, but now Beijing says they have been indisputably China’s for centuries.

Chinese boats have patrolled near the East China Sea islets, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus, almost continuously since last September. Chinese planes have also flown near and over the disputed island chain, which is uninhabited. For instance, Beijing alarmed Tokyo—and Washington—by sending a patrol craft from the State Oceanic Administration over the Senkakus on December 13th.

The Carnegie analyst James Schoff, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, notes that the Chinese incursions are becoming more frequent and are lasing longer. “It fits into the Chinese narrative that we are there to keep you out,” he says. “The narrative has changed to be ‘Not only is it we can go there but you can’t be here.’ That’s a fundamental change.”

What has fundamentally changed in Beijing? It’s not clear what is driving Chinese belligerence at the moment. It could be disarray in Beijing that is allowing the hard-line elements to do what they want or maybe new leader Xi Jinping is the nationalist he is reputed to be and is pushing his country toward a showdown with a projection of force. In any event Xi has just said that China’s territorial claims will not be compromised, and it’s unclear if Beijing can be appeased.

The Japanese keep trying, however. In the last two weeks, no fewer than three of their political figures have made pilgrimages to China in apparent attempts to cool tensions, one of them carrying a message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. On Tuesday, Abe himself proposed a summit with China. Beijing’s reaction? It sent three of its vessels close to the islands.

Talking to belligerent powers in conciliatory tones is almost always the wrong strategy, as it is at this late moment in the turbulent waters of the East China Sea. China needs to understand that Japan will challenge its belligerence, with force if necessary, and that the US will back Tokyo to the hilt. 

Japan and the US, however, appear desperate to keep peace in Asia and are afraid to anger the Chinese. There were early signs last year, when Washington effectively reneged on its treaty obligations to Manila and allowed Beijing to forcefully take Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, a low point for American diplomacy. The Obama administration, unfortunately, chose to ignore China’s aggression and in effect invited conflict in Asia.

Today, Henry Kissinger advocates conciliatory policies that have obviously failed to curb Chinese expansionism. There was a time, however, when he understood how to keep hostile powers in check. “Whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community,” he wrote in A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–22. “Whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace, stability based on an equilibrium of forces was at least conceivable.”

Unfortunately, Tokyo and Washington’s alternating policy of avoidance and appeasement in the face of Chinese aggression in the East China Sea is undermining the very stability they seek.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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