BEIJING – China’s top leaders officially agreed last year to prevent a military clash with Japan and any interference from the United States regarding the bitter sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, sources close to them said Saturday.
This basic principle, endorsed late last year by the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of China’s power structure, stands despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to war-related Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26, which further strained tensions with Beijing, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The seven-member standing committee, led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, reached the consensus that the country has “no intention of fighting with Japan and Japan does not have the courage to fight with China,” after convening a rare two-day meeting in late October in Beijing with Chinese ambassadors posted to about 30 neighboring countries, one of the sources said.
Following the meeting, which was held in a round-table format and also attended by senior party and military officials, as well as executives of state-owned companies, the committee also agreed “to prevent the United States from interfering” in the territorial dispute, the source said.
For the Chinese goal of creating a “moderately prosperous society” in all respects by 2020, Xi said that a stable and peaceful environment is essential, according to the sources.
Xi took the initiative in organizing the meeting, and its main purpose was to discuss China’s foreign policy goals in Asia for the next five to 10 years so that threats to its goal of achieving what he calls the “Chinese Dream” can be nipped in the bud, they said.
The basic principle is believed to have been widely shared by high-ranking officials of the government and the party, but the government has been keeping that secret, apparently to keep pressure on Japan.
As with Japan, China does not want to have an accidental military clash take place in surrounding waters or airspace, although it has no plan to make any compromise on its claims to the Japan-administered Senkakus.
On Nov. 23, China abruptly set up an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that happens to encompass the same uninhabited islets. It asserted that planes passing through the ADIZ must comply with its rules or risk being subjected to unspecified “emergency defensive measures.”
But in accordance with the principle of avoiding unnecessary security risks with Japan, China has not been fully enforcing the zone and is refraining from carrying out provocative military acts around the islands, which it calls Diaoyu. Taiwan, which also claims the islands, calls them Tiaoyutai.
Still, China has not stopped sending patrol ships into and to the edge of Japan’s territorial waters there ever since the Japanese government felt obliged to purchase the bulk of them in September 2012 from their private Japanese owner to stifle Tokyo’s bid to purchase them. That move effectively nationalized the chain.
Without taking the risk of having a standoff over the islands develop into an armed conflict, China will most likely maintain its offensive posture against Japan, partly because it needs to avert potential backlash in opinion at home and wants to show to the rest of the world that a territorial dispute exists with Tokyo.
Copying the stance of South Korea in a separate island dispute, Japan’s long-held position on the Senkakus is that they are an inherent part of its territory and that there is no territorial dispute to be settled, while the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands but recognizes they are under the administration of Japan.
The United States, which is Japan’s most important security ally, has said Article 5 of its security treaty with Tokyo applies to the Senkakus.
China is likely to continue pressing the U.S. administration to remove the islands from the scope of the article, under which Washington is required to defend Japan in the event of armed attacks.
Xi’s government is also expected to step up its efforts to weaken the long-standing alliance by warning that Abe’s historical views, such as his latest visit to the Shinto shrine where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honored along with about 2.5 million war dead — represent Japan’s resurgent militarism.