How a Tiny Island Chain Explains the China-Japan Dispute

Beijing's imposition of an air defense identification zone is only one part of the struggle over the future of Northeast Asia.

Vice President Biden at a press conference with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

So far, much of the discussion of China's air-defense identification zone (ADIZ), a new law requiring foreign aircraft to notify China when they fly over a designated region in the East China Sea, has centered on Beijing's motivations: What is China trying to accomplish by instituting the zone? And, considering that it triggered immediate opposition from the United States and Japan, was this decision a mistake?

These are important questions, but it's worth zooming out and considering the more fundamental causes for tension in Northeast Asia. Here, the issues become more complex. Is China's aggression caused by a new president trying to establish his legitimacy? Or is it, instead, an attempt to capitalize on domestic anti-Japanese sentiment? Does the conflict reflect how pre-World War II history continues to shape contemporary East Asian relations? Or is it a scramble for the rich energy resources that supposedly lie inside the disputed waters?

The answer to each of these questions is, unhelpfully, yes. And that's what makes the present conflict in Northeast Asia so difficult to resolve.

The territorial dispute between China and Japan, concerning a group of islands called the Senkakus in Japanese (and the Diaoyu in Chinese), is hardly unusual in a crowded region with many competing interests. Since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, China has resolved border disagreements with nearly all of its neighbors, but still has outstanding disputes with India (over Arunachal Pradesh) and several Southeast Asian countries (over the Spratly and Paracel Islands). Japan, too, is engaged in an ongoing spat with South Korea over the Takeshima Islands, known as Dokdo in Korean.

The disagreement over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands began in 1971, when, after sovereignty reverted from American to Japanese control (a legacy from the postwar Treaty of San Francisco that gave the U.S. jurisdiction over some Japanese territory), both China and Taiwan claimed ownership. But it is only in the last decade that the conflict has escalated beyond a regional issue and has attracted widespread international concern. Why has the island dispute turned into such a problem?

China and Japan Need Fossil Fuels—and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (Probably) Have Them

The Senkaku/Diaoyus are a chain of islands and rocks in the East China Sea that, since Japan's discovery of them in the 1880s, have never been inhabited. In the late 1960s, a geological survey determined that the waters surrounding the islands likely contain vast deposits of oil and natural gas, and, though this energy potential has yet to be realized, Beijing and Tokyo have a strong incentive to claim it for themselves.

No countries in the world import more fossil fuels than China and Japan. For the Chinese Communist Party, whose legitimacy depends largely on enabling fast economic growth, oil and natural gas imports are essential in fueling fixed-asset infrastructure and the country's expansion of private car ownership. More domestic resources would allow the country to disengage from potentially unstable oil exporters such as Iran, Sudan, and Venezuela. (The same logic, of course, explains interest in the U.S. for Alaskan oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing.)

Japan faces a different calculation. Over the last few decades, the country moved away from oil and natural gas imports, but the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster caused the Japanese government to shut down all 50 of its nuclear reactors and rely on fossil fuels to compensate.

But the present military brinkmanship over the ADIZ seems to be an overreaction to a trade issue that, presumably, could be negotiated. According to Shihoko Goto, a Japan expert at the Wilson Center, "For both Japan and China, this has gone far beyond the question of who has access to the blue water, oil and other natural resources. This is about history."

The Pull of Nationalism

Since the conclusion of the Second World War, the countries in Northeast Asia have undergone perhaps the fastest, most impressive modernization process in world history. And yet, the political legacy from that conflict—and the years preceding it—continue to shape present-day relations between China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

Beijing, Seoul, and many other Asian countries feel that Tokyo has not adequately atoned for its behavior during the first half of the 20th century, when Japan dominated the continent through its "co-prosperity sphere." However, Japanese conservatives dispute this claim and argue that, to the contrary, Tokyo has apologized enough, and ought to revisit its infamous "anti-defense" article of its constitution.

Meanwhile, China's three decades of sustained economic growth has lifted its confidence in asserting its historical dominance in the region, which over the past two centuries had eroded due to weakness, division, and foreign incursion. And as Beijing's military has grown and modernized, the government has become more assertive in enforcing territorial claims. In the East China Sea, these claims entail all maritime territory within a "nine-dash line" enveloping offshore land claimed by nearly every other coastal country in the region.

The development of the Senkaku/Diaoyu crisis serves as a useful example. Last year Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing governor of Tokyo, announced at the Heritage Foundation that he wished to purchase three of the five islands from their private owner. Alarmed, the Japanese national government purchased the islands instead, hoping that by keeping them out of Ishihara's control, they'd defuse a potential crisis with China. The ploy backfired. According to Goto, "The Chinese have been very upset by the fact that the islands were passed from one owner to another when the Chinese feel they have very legitimate claims to the islands."

Both the Chinese and Japanese governments have turned in a nationalist direction. Xi Jinping, appointed chairman of China's Communist Party late last year, has adopted the "Chinese Dream" as his slogan, and has, in an apparent cop to anti-Japan voices within the Party, refused to meet with the Japanese government. In Japan, meanwhile, the election of the conservative Shinzo Abe as prime minister rests in part on Japanese fears of Chinese power. As a result, neither the Japanese nor Chinese governments have an incentive to compromise with the other.

Where the United States Fits In

Vice President Joseph Biden's current visit to the region—originally intended to assuage the world that the American "pivot to Asia" actually means something—has suddenly become a test of Washington's ability to manage a dispute between the world's second and third largest economies.

The United States is bound, by treaty, to come to Japan's defense in the event the latter is attacked, and the vice president has taken great pains to insist that there is "no daylight" between Washington and Tokyo on the question of China's ADIZ. But according to a report by The Wall Street Journal, the Japanese government is privately upset that the U.S. cannot seem to decide whether to comply with the Chinese law or defy it, implying that Tokyo and Washington, quite naturally, have different incentives.

In the short term, the American strategy is obvious: Reduce tension between China and Japan and, if possible, negotiate a conclusion to the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. But in the long term, the crisis may just be a prelude to what is likely to be the dominant issue of American foreign policy in the coming decades: China's growing challenge to American hegemony in the Western Pacific. In Foreign Policy, the international relations scholar Stephen F. Walt put it this way:

If the United States is able to maintain the status quo in Asia and help prevent China from dominating the region, then Beijing will have to focus a lot of attention on local issues, and its capacity to shape politics in other parts of the world will be constrained. By contrast, if China eventually pushes the United States out of Asia, it will have the same sort of hegemonic position in its region that the United States has long enjoyed near its own shores. That favorable position is what allows Washington to wander all over the world telling others what it thinks they should do, and regional hegemony would give Beijing the option of doing the same if it wished. It might even start forging closer ties— including security ties—with countries in the Western Hemisphere. That's why the question of how long Beijing will tolerate the U.S. presence in Asia is so important. 

And this, ultimately, is the major story lurking beneath the crisis in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. China doesn't assert its foreign policy claims because of nationalist, historical, or energy-related reasons, though each of these are important. The real reason is that, as China becomes more powerful militarily, its capabilities and interests will necessarily shift, and countries like the United States and Japan will have to adjust. Rather than being a discrete event that can be resolved through negotiation and diplomacy, the current trends suggest that the Sino-Japanese crisis over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands will merely be the prelude to larger conflicts down the road.