China using Senkakus dispute to test Japan, U.S.


Almost a year ago, China and the Philippines were at loggerheads over their conflicting claims to ownership of the Scarborough Shoal fishing grounds and anchorage in the South China Sea, setting alarm bells ringing about a possible grab for control by Beijing in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

Today, the dispute still simmers, but the main zone of contention between China and its neighbors has moved to the East China Sea, where Beijing is contesting Tokyo’s sovereignty and administration over the Senkaku islands.

The confrontation between China and Japan, a key ally of the United States, has become one of East Asia’s most dangerous flash points. China says it was provoked to take strong retaliatory action after the Japanese government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda bought three of the five uninhabited islands in the contested group from their private Japanese owner in September.

Japan had rented the three islands but banned landings or development on them to avoid antagonizing Beijing. But this arrangement was threatened by moves led by Shintaro Ishihara, the ultranationalist Tokyo governor at the time, to buy the islands and build fishing and other facilities there.

The intensifying struggle between Asia’s two top economies for control of the islands helped bring a conservative government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power in December elections on a platform to strengthen Japan’s economy and defenses.

Since the “nationalization” of the islands, China has sought to portray Japan, despite its pacificism since 1945, as a threat to the region and a country intent on reviving its militarist past when it invaded much of Asia before and during World War II.

Yet the areas Beijing claims in the South China Sea are certainly far more valuable in the fisheries, energy and mineral resources they contain than the parts of the East China Sea contested with Japan.

Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea are also much more extensive than its claims in the East China Sea. The island and maritime zone disputed between China and Japan amounts to around 68,000 sq. km.

However, Beijing asserts sovereignty and other forms of jurisdiction over approximately 3 million sq. km, or about 80 percent, of the semi-enclosed South China Sea. This is nearly the size of India’s land territory (3.3 million sq. km).

The potential commercial and strategic value of the South China Sea is many times greater for Beijing than its relatively small claim against Japan in the East China Sea.

Why, then, has China been pursuing its claims against Japan over the disputed East China Sea islands in a much more muscular way in late 2012 and early 2013 than its case involving Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea?

It is evidently testing Japan and the U.S. at a time when each appears relatively weak and hesitant. Beijing knows that if it can make headway with its East China Sea island claim against two big allied powers like the U.S. and Japan, it will be easier in future to overawe its smaller Southeast Asian rival claimants in the South China Sea.

But Beijing also decided to intensify para-military and other operations against Japan, a nation whose wartime aggression is seared into Asian historical memory, because confrontations with smaller neighbors in the past few years have led to a regional backlash against China.

The result has been a rising mistrust of China, increased defense spending to guard against Chinese assertiveness, a turn to the U.S. as a counterbalance to Chinese power, the strengthening of U.S. alliances in Asia and development of security partnerships as a hedge against Chinese coercion.

Beijing faces an awkward propaganda problem in the South China Sea. Its claims are not against an original imperial or colonial power, as with Japan in the East China Sea.

Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia are Southeast Asia’s chief claimants to land features (islands, atolls and reefs) in the South China Sea. Tiny Brunei has a minor claim. Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone — extending northwards from Natuna, the main Indonesian island territory in the South China Sea — overlaps in a substantial way with China’s far-flung claims.

Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea are against states that either fought or campaigned peacefully against colonial powers. In the case of Malaysia and Brunei, the colonial power was Britain. For the Philippines, it was the U.S. For Vietnam it is was France. For Indonesia, it was the Netherlands.

All these Southeast Asian countries have been proudly independent for decades. Many of them have demonstrated the same kind of stellar economic growth and competent government as China in recent years.

Like China, they have taken their place in the ranks of progressive developing and industrializing nations. They are universally acknowledged to be postcolonial successor states, as well as success stories.

These Southeast Asian nations with maritime claims in the South China Sea that overlap with those of China place a high premium on sovereignty and national rights, just as China does.

However, all the Southeast Asian countries involved are far smaller in population size, economic strength and military power than China. By these measures, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are dwarfed by China, the world’s most populous nation and second-biggest economy and military spender. Even Indonesia, the fourth most-populous nation and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, is heavily outweighed by China.

China is therefore in an exposed propaganda position in the South China Sea. It can easily be portrayed as a regional bully. Indeed, it is cast in an aggressive light in countless news media reports, and government and nongovernment analyses, that circulate widely outside China.

The reputational damage to China’s international image and its self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” doctrine is already serious. It will get worse for as long as Beijing maintains what appears to most of the outside world to be a policy of overweening power and sabre-rattling.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

  • As i see it, China has to prepare for wars as the lines are
    already drawn, even as early as the 1970’s.

    The control over Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands by US, followed by Japan is a demonstration of US and Japan’s strength over China to contain China’s rise as a maritime power. And the 2013 Defense Authorization Act signed into law by Obama, is a subtle declaration of war by US and Japan on China.
    Lastly but not least, US’ pivot to Asia is aimed squarely at China. In remarks to fellow NATO members in Washington in July 2012, Phillip Hammond, the UK Secretary of State for Defense declared explicitly that the new US defense shift to the Asia-Pacific region was aimed squarely at China. And US Air-Sea Battle’s goal is to help US forces withstand
    an initial Chinese assault and counterattack to destroy sophisticated Chinese radar and missile systems built to keep US ships away from China’s coastline.

    In conclusion, China has no choice but to drive out Japan and US from Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, as the islands form the first island chain for defense and attack positions against aggressors.

    • henrynguyen

      Let’s not fool anyone about the US’s pivot or the nationalization of Senkakus islands as being the justifications for Chinese behaviors. China has pursued the expansionist aggression in lands and out at seas for decades: hidden or covered up when it was weaker, more open/blatant when it became stronger. Its criminal invasions of Tibet, India, Philippines, Vietnam and lawless attempts to bully small neighbors have long been exposed and gradual anti-China momentum is building. Even if China only chooses to just engage Japan for political expediency, other countries such as Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are not going to allowed the obvious Chinese ” divide-and-conquer ” approach.

    • Kris

      Absolutely absurd. China is the common link in dispute after dispute with other countries in the western Pacific region. China has land disputes with Japan, Phillippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China already swallowed up peaceful Tibet. China thinks that any shred of land its people ever saw or set foot upon at any time in the past is theirs to be reclaimed by force. It’s no wonder the charm offensive hasn’t worked, as all of the other countries in east and southeast Asia see China for what it is, a bully that has no problems oppressing its own people, let alone other people.

    • David Altman

      The Western nation-state system, which has now existed for at least 300 years and been dominant for over a hundred, has always pitted nation against nation for territory, wealth, influence and power–by politics and diplomacy when possible and war when necessary. But China has played this same game for millennia. China itself was created when one kingdom finally conquered its neighbors, and China’s history is a thousands year long economic, military and territorial expansion, only occasionally halted or reversed. So yes, the United States’ “Asian pivot” is aimed at China (which is the biggest open secret in the world), as is Japan’s alliance with the US. The US has a successful history of constraining threats and competitors through alliances and encirclement. However, any fair reading of history shows that the US’ goals are to preserve stability and peace (and its power too), rather than wage aggressive war. That is why historically the US’ main weapons are containment and sanction, not kinetic violence. The US was and is a rather marginal, incompetent, impatient and indifferent imperial/colonial power. The US believes that its main strength lies in its own territory, people and political and economic institutions. Thus, the US believes that in any peaceful and stable environment, it will prevail in the long term. As you note, the US’ strategy’s “goal is to help US forces withstand an initial Chinese assault and [then] counterattack.” In short, the US is poised to counteract Chinese military aggression. And perhaps China (and its people) should ask themselves why all of China’s neighbors (except Burma and North Korea) are so worried about China’s aggression that they fairly jumped into the US’ arms with offers of military alliance and bases.

    • Guest

      Yep, that pretty much sums up the attitude, but whether it is justified is yet another story,,,We all have to live next to someone on this planet, and paranoia is not going to make it any easier to get along, now is it?

    • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

      Nonsense. The Senaku’s are too tiny to serve any useful strategic purpose. In case of war, all life larger than a cat can be easily exterminated with modern bombs. What is going on is just a lot of Apes banging on their chests; we are Apes first, humans second.

  • Andrew

    No, they are not ‘testing’ anything. The Chinese government would wish this issue to just go away. Instead, it is the Chinese populace, although given to highly charged emotional displays, that refuses to let go. If the central government makes any motions to back down, the criticism of the populace will fall on them, hard. And to the populace, it is purely about one thing:

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… “can’t get fool’d again!” Most of the Chinese population, and a minority in Taiwan or Hong Kong feel totally sucker punched by the Japanese. They will never let go.

    • Guest

      did you do a survey of “Most of the Chinese population”? and if so, where’s the report?

    • The government can’t make up its mind between encouraging and containing nationalism. If the CCP wants to walk away from this issue then could defuse it bit by bit, but they aren’t attempting to. It is highly likely that many people do actually believe the islands belong to China and they believe that because that is the information they’ve been given. The CCP could distance itself from concocting these stories if it really wanted the issue to go away. The CCP is using nationalism to provide its legitimacy in post-communist China, and it will increasingly struggle to manage it, but it is going entirely the wrong way about it. Although you are right to some extent, there is definitely an element of the tail wagging the dog.

  • US knows full well that Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands belong to China, but as China was won over by the Communists in 1949, it did the unthinkable, interfering in the affairs of China. It transferred administrative control of the islands to Japan, via the San Francisco Treaty in the 1970’s, intentionally infringing upon the territorial sovereignty of China and so, created a flashpoint in East China Sea.

    Diaoyu Islands then becomes a powder keg which can blow up into a war between China and Japan and with US’ interference, even lead to WW3.

    The many statements coming out of US and Japan, just goes to show that US and Japan are not bothered about Potsdam Proclaimation and Cairo Declaration, as a
    post-war international order, to effect the return of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to China. US and Japan are only concerned with containing China within the first island chain, as long as they have control of them. This is in effect, a subtle declaration of war on China.

    And the warnings by US to China to stay out of Diaoyu Islands is a challenge to China’s dignity and territorial sovereignty, and in fact, both US and Japan had
    thrown a gauntlet down, to see if China is daring enough to take up the fight over the islands.

    Though the world had gone through two world wars, US and Japan are still eager to provoke China to a war. Abe has in mind to bring to fruition, a “democratic diamond security,” which is basically an anti-China military alliance. His warmongering attitude is further strengthened with his
    attempts to influence and lure ASEAN nations to his side in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands’ dispute with China.

    China had made representations in the UN over Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, circulated a White Paper, and even provided evidence that Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are on its continental shelf. The representations and evidences have proven beyond doubt that China is the owner of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

    • Disgusted

      The Senkaku Islands have been controlled by Japan since 1895 and it is doubtful that they ever belonged to China at any time in history. To make absurd claims like “China’s sacred inherent territory” is beyond ludicrous; if a country could claim another country’s territories based on such a premise then every part of the world could be claimed by somebody else. Such claims have no legitimacy either legally or morally.

      All it is, China has come up in the world with its new-found wealth. It has been building up its military with double-digit increases in its military budget for the past 21 years. It views the US and Japan as “weak,” figures it is the new tough kid on the block, and wants to become a “world power,” control all of Asia and presumably avenge what is, in its mind, past wrongs, defeats and humiliations. To do that it needs to control the East China and South China seas and all the shipping lanes in them, because China has very little coastline. Their plan for the Senkaku Islands is to build a submarine base.

      Also is always very necessary for a country like China with an oppressive, authoritarian, corrupt one-party government to stir up nationalism and deflect the attention of its citizens from its shortcomings. Japan fits the bill nicely, much better that the USA which the average Chinese citizen knows virtually nothing about. But they hate Japan with a passion due to the endless anti-Japanese propaganda from their government, their educationals system and their media. Oh, don’t worry about China’s “dignity.” or pride. It does not have any of that; China is universally distrusted and disrespected.

      • dorky boy

        Yes it is, their after ancient territory that was only drawn on ancient maps by ancient mariners not making any claim at all and yet they say it is theirs. Why do they not want to go to a UN sponsored int’l court to and duke it out with PH if they think they own the coastlines close to that area. All manufactured so how? how to trust such? history manufactured? maps manufactured? so how to trust? correct or not?

      • justice_first

        James Ong is totally correct in saying that the islands belonged to China before 1895, and certainly after 1945.

        Japan is saying that it discovered them in 1884, and then annexed them in 1895. It also alleged that the islands were “Terra Nullius”, as belonging to no one. All these allegations are totally groundless and ridiculous. The name “Senkaku” was only “given” to the islands in early 1900. It is totally disingenuous to say that they are the “inherent territories” of Japan. China discovered, named, and used the islands in maritime defense and diplomatic relations with the Ryukyu Kingdom from the 1400’s.

        For 500 years, Japan ignored these islands untill 1884. The islands were under the jurisdiction of China and Taiwan (part of China) before 1895.

        After world war II, Japan lost all “conquered” territories, except the four main islands. Japan has obligations under the instrument of surrender to hand back the islands to China in 1945 together with Taiwan. The US deliberately handed the islands to Japan in 1972 knowing they belong to China, and that they “don’t” belong to Japan. The San Francisco Treaty of 1951, without China and Russia as signing parties, is “not” valid to change the terms of surrender of Japan. The US, therefore has no right to hand the islands to Japan in 1972.

        Even today, the US is not saying the islands belong to Japan.

        The core issue is : who is the rightful owner of the islands? The answer is China, 1,000%.

        Japan and its supporters are trying everything, using every means, to smear China, to smear the communist government, to smear the Chinese, in order to gain support to its weak and illegal claim today. However it is important to understand that “righteousness” is fundamental to any legitimate claim in world history. The result of world war II has provided China with the righteousness and legality, based on the instrument of surrender, and the post WWII order. Japan must “fulfill its obligations” under its terms of surrender.

        No amount of smearing of China’s name can change the fact that Japan was defeated in the second world war, and that the islands, as part of Taiwan, are Chinese “sovereign” territories.

        China has handed the case to the UN as of now.

    • Guest

      you are a provocateur, to be sure.There is nothing in history that even remotely suggests what you are claiming to be “the truth”,,,and the rest of your statement is pure supposition or wishful thinking (mostly of the biased sort)

  • Oh should we dare mention Tibet? China is using its wealth from the subprime fiasco to finance state of the art navy. Why because it has a shopping list that includes Taiwan. Every year it is becoming more belligerent. They say in China that there will be a naval conflict between China and Japan next year. That is in the public domain. Very scary. The US will support Japan but would they risk a nuclear conflagration …no. so

  • Down under

    The title of the article is preposterous. The whole escalation of dispute started with Japan nationalising the islands and yet, Richardson turned the table and blame it on China. This is a typical China bashing article.