Can China's and Japan's New Leadership Keep the Peace?

The recent struggle over islands in the East China Sea marks a foreign-policy test for Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

For anyone who hoped that 2013 would bring an end to the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyutai in China), the initial weeks of the year have brought disappointment. Following the appearance of Chinese surveillance planes over the island, Japan dispatched F-15 fighter jets on January 10 to shoo them, only to be met by similar Chinese aircraft the next day.

If this disagreement sounds familiar, that's because both countries have tussled repeatedly over this issue in the last five years. Like a bad television show, no episode is distinguishable from any other; an intrusion occurs, government ministers protest, civilians demonstrate, military tensions rise, and finally, after much hemming and hawing, cooler heads prevail and the crisis fades. That is, until tensions spark again and the whole process repeats itself.

This time, however, the squabbling seems more serious than usual. What explains the difference? The basic facts surrounding the dispute haven't changed. Both China and Japan view the archipelago as an integral part of their national territory and, of course, wouldn't mind finding out if the rumors of huge oil and gas reserves in the surrounding waters are true. China thinks Japan has refused to return all of the territory it took during its imperial era, while Japan feels China's territorial claim is little more than a naked power grab.

What has changed, however, is the political context. In November, China officially anointed Xi Jinping as the next General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the country's highest political position, bringing the decade-long reign of Hu Jintao to a close. While not particularly noted within the party as a foreign policy hawk, Xi spoke forcefully in protest against Japan's purchase of the Senkaku Islands last summer, calling the act a "farce" and urging Japan to "rein in its behavior." Xi no doubt understands that the CCP derives a large part of its legitimacy from enforcing China's territorial integrity as well as nurturing a grudge over Japan's past transgressions, and will be under tremendous political pressure to enforce a hardline in any bilateral negotiations with Tokyo.

Japan, for its part, recently elected the hawkish Shinzo Abe to his second stint as prime minister. Though Abe has said the right things regarding Sino-Japanese relations, he has also publicly criticized Japan's pacifistic constitution and has, perhaps not coincidentally, approved a raise in the country's defense budget, which will increase for the first time in 11 years. In a December op-ed published in Project Syndicate, Abe spoke caustically about the East China Sea resembling "Lake Beijing" and vowed not to yield to what he calls China's "daily exercises in coercion."

Abe's statements regarding China reflect more than simply his own personal beliefs- they also are indicative of a noticeable shift in Japanese public opinion. According to a twelve-year survey conducted by the Japanese government, public opinion toward China has hit record lows. Unsurprisingly, the inverse is also true: According to a different survey, negative feelings in China toward Japan have worsened by over 20 percent since 2011.

Just because relations have worsened, of course, does not mean war is imminent: both China and Japan have strong incentives to avoid escalating their bilateral crisis. Nevertheless, the trend in both countries is clear: a robust defense of the islands is good politics and politics, for better or for worse, drives bilateral relations more than either side likes to admit. Whether a rocky outpost in the middle of the East China Sea becomes a mere historical footnote or the start of something more serious will depend on how the two leaders strike a balance between national interest and the wishes of their people.