China and Japan Turn the Screw over Island Dispute

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 18

Anti-Japanese Protestors Carry Images of Mao Zedong

Once again Tokyo and Beijing played with fire over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, operating under the assumption that the consequent outbursts of nationalism can be contained indefinitely and will not degenerate to the extent that they would threaten the mutually beneficial bilateral ties.

On several occasions in recent years, relations between the two countries degenerated on issues such as sovereignty over the islands or the controversial visits by Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine, sparking large, and sometimes violent, protests across China and engendering vitriolic editorials in Chinese media (“Sino-Japanese Relations: Citizens Taking Charge Despite Government Efforts,” China Brief, September 7). In every instance, however, tensions were diffused before the crisis could translate into clashes between the two Asian competitors. The belief that nationalistic fervor—a useful instrument for politicians to rally various constituents around the flag in times of domestic discontent— always will be manageable and that precedent provides the assurance of similar outcomes in the future is a recipe for disaster.

Already high tensions over the islets were exacerbated on September 10 when Tokyo announced it would spend 2.05 billion Yen ($26 million) to purchase three of the islets comprising the Senkaku chain—Uotsurijima, Kita-Kojima and Minami-Kojima—from a private owner (Beijing Review, September 14; Kyodo News, September 11). As the deal, viewed by Tokyo as the least drastic among a list of options, was formalized the following day, large protests erupted in cities across China. A number of Japanese citizens sustained injuries after being targeted by demonstrators, while Japanese businesses were ransacked, cars smashed, windows broken and restaurants set on fire. Thousands of Chinese gathered in front of Japanese diplomatic missions, some carrying pictures of Mao Zedong or banners calling for war against Japan, death to “Japanese robbers” and, in Shenzhen, the “nuclear extermination of wild Japanese dogs” (Wall Street Journal, September 16). In a rare departure from previous practice over the dispute, in which the civilian leadership, rather than the armed forces, would comment, Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesman Geng Yansheng hinted the following day at the possibility of a military response from China (Asahi Shimbun, September 12).

The series of attacks on Japanese companies nationwide, principally brand names, prompted the suspension of operations at a number of firms. Toyota, the world’s largest car manufacturer, announced shutdowns at its three assembly plants and six other factories across China, while Honda closed all its five plants and Nissan suspended operations at two of its three factories in the country. Canon, Panasonic, Mazda and Mitsubishi also suspended operations (Agence France Presse [AFP], September 18; Reuters, September 18). By September 18, hundreds of Japanese stores and plants had suspended operations as a result of the violence.

Boycotts of Japanese products were announced to coincide with the 81st anniversary on September 18 of the Mukden Incident of 1931, while a music video was released on YouTube replete with martial overtones and symbols of Japanese aggression. The Chinese government also threatened economic sanctions against Japan, a scheduled visit by Japanese parliamentarians was cancelled and China withdrew all its badminton players from the Japan Open in protest of Japan’s actions (AFP, September 18; People’s Daily, September 17).

Chinese media also weighed in with editorials and headlines laden with calls for war. In a posting on Weibo that was quickly removed the following day, the Beijing Evening News called for Tokyo to be “nuked” (China Digital Times, September 12), while the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times carried a number of bellicose commentaries, including a joint statement signed by ten generals—among them retired Major General Luo Yuan—encouraging measures be taken to increase preparedness in case strikes against Japan were necessary (South China Morning Post, September 16; PLA Daily, September 13, September 12; Global Times, September 12). Revealingly, the PLA Daily, which under normal circumstances will carry articles from state-run Xinhua news agency or the People’s Daily, carried its own editorial on the dispute in a commentary that nevertheless reflected the official position already adopted by the civilian leadership in Beijing. It warned of “serious consequences,” while adding that China was no longer the China of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 or the Second World War (PLA Daily, September 12; Xinhua, September 12) [1].

In further signs that the PLA was taking a more proactive, and perhaps independent, role in the crisis, Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie said during a joint press conference with visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Beijing on September 18 that China reserved the right to take “further action” to resolve the territorial dispute (Global Times, September 18). In the past, a civilian leader, such as President Hu Jintao or Vice President Xi Jinping, would have delivered that message even if it was only a reiteration of the Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman’s public remarks.

The theme of the protests and editorials has overwhelmingly surrounded historical grievances and “humiliations” at the hand of Japanese going back to the war of 1894-1895 at the conclusion of which Japan “illegally grabbed the Diaoyu Island and the affiliated islets” as well as Taiwan (Beijing Review, September 14) [2]. Although the islets are of economic value thanks to fisheries and potential natural gas resources, Chinese anger has focused almost exclusively on territoriality and history, with a racial component, such as a widely-circulated call on Chinese-language bulletin boards for a boycott of Japanese products by a Taiwan-based nationalist organization encouraging the “Chinese race” to stand up to Japan.

Drawing Down

Following the attacks on Japanese interests in China and complaints by Tokyo, Beijing pledged on September 17 that it would protect Japanese citizens and property in China, while urging protesters to express themselves in “orderly, rational and lawful” ways (Reuters, September 17). Beijing, which to a degree has encouraged public protests and expressions of nationalism amid growing discontent with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the economy, while trying to minimize the damage to its image caused by an embarrassing scandal involving Bo Xilai and his wife, seems to have realized that the anti-Japan protests had reached breaking point and that action was needed to prevent further escalation (Washington Post, September 17). Local governments also began issuing strict directives. For example, police in Changsha, Hunan Province, issued an edict forbidding municipal government employees from instigating or taking part in anti-Japan demonstrations and marches, while media in Beijing were prohibited from interviewing Diaoyu defenders. In Shenzhen, the municipal party committee and government issued a text message on mobile phones exhorting protesters to avoid violence and to behave “rationally” (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], September 16).

In another sign that Beijing was trying to deescalate the situation, the Global Times ran an article on September 18 in which ordinary Chinese and academics deplored the violent protests against Japanese citizens in China and contrasted those with the fair treatment of Chinese citizens residing in Japan (Global Times, September 18). China-based commentators also have drawn attention to several instances where Chinese said they felt “ashamed” at the protesters’ violent behavior, but were afraid to say anything for fear of retribution [3]. This would indicate support for violence against Japanese is not a mainstream sentiment and that the extreme acts may have been the result of fringe elements or, if state supported, of factions within the CCP seeking a more aggressive stance by China.

In addition to those measures, unprecedented police contingents were deployed in cities across China and around Japanese diplomatic missions ahead of the September 18 protests. This nevertheless did not prevent windows at the Japanese embassy in Beijing from being smashed, though there was no repeat of the destruction that had marked protests in the previous week. The atmosphere was described as “carnival-like,” despite the preponderance of signs reading “Kill Japanese” (Reuters, September 18; AFP, September 18).

Beyond the Manageable

Although both governments have attempted to de-escalate the situation following the announcement of the nationalization of the islets, other actions risk triggering a new round of animosity—if not clashes. No sooner had China lifted its annual fishing moratorium on fishing in the East China Sea than an erroneous report ostentatiously announced 1,000 small fishing boats from Zhejiang and Fujian province headed for the vicinity of the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands. Two Japanese activists also provocatively landed on Uotsuri on September 18 before being taken away by the Japanese Coast Guard. Japanese police reported the pair belonged to a crew of five that had left from Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island, south of the Senkakus (Global Times, September 18; NHK, September 18). Later that day, the Japanese Coast Guard announced eleven Chinese Maritime Surveillance Ships had entered waters around the islands with ten vessels spotted in contiguous waters off Uotsurijima and, on September 20, Beijing increased the total number of vessels patrolling the area to 16 (Xinhua, September 20; AFP, September 18). The presence of so many vessels around the contested area—added to the possibility that fishermen or nationalists could act on their own rather than on orders from their respective governments—greatly increases the possibility of confrontation and accidents, which in turn can lead to miscommunication between the governments and further escalation.

In previous crises, Tokyo and Beijing succeeded in containing nationalistic sentiment before it could spin out of control and seriously harm relations. While such risk-taking may serve domestic purposes, the assumption that future escalation also will be manageable is a dangerous one. In one of the commentary pieces referenced above, Luo Yuan has made it clear that China today is not the China that a recently industrialized Japan easily defeated in 1894 when the territory under contest was Korea. In fact, China today is not the China of 2005 or 2010, when relations between the two countries also soured. Precedent may have let decision makers in Tokyo to conclude they can up the ante constantly and get away with it as they did with the arrest of the fishing captain in 2010. Such beliefs, however, comport serious risks as the behavior of an increasingly assertive and self-confident China is hard to predict. At some point, Beijing may rule that Japan has crossed a line and decide to retaliate. Tokyo’s gambling, for its own domestic agenda, is all the more dangerous because of the opacity that characterizes government operations in China as well as the internal tensions generated by factionalism within the CCP ahead of a power transition. These factors make it very difficult for outside observers to know with certainty what will trigger what response from Beijing. This is especially true if Beijing senses that domestic dissatisfaction with the economy is threatening its legitimacy, which could then make an external distraction—and nothing serves that purpose better than Japan—all the more appealing. This also makes it possible for hardline elements within the CCP and the PLA to exploit tensions to shape the composition of the future Politburo ahead of the transition later this year.

Another risk stemming from the current escalation is that it creates a new baseline for future crises in part through the accumulation of public frustration at the perceived inability of the CCP to respond to repeated insults to Chinese national pride by Japan. The appearance of several portraits of Mao at the recent protests, for example, could be a signal of radicalization among the Chinese public as representations of the former leader were usually absent in previous years. Some Chinese youth recently told reporters that if Mao were still in power today, China would surely have declared war on Japan. These comments can be interpreted as signifying both dissatisfaction with the current leadership and support for a more muscular (i.e. military) response to perceived slights. So far, however, neither Beijing nor Tokyo has given indications that they intend to militarize the issue.

While it is too soon to tell how this latest chapter in the longstanding crisis will play out, there already are signs that Beijing is seeking to score a few points if only to save face. The flags of both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) have been seen at protests in China and abroad, which probably stems from a calculated attempt by the CCP to cultivate the illusion of cross-strait cooperation on the Diaoyu-Senkakus. Such cooperation, if genuine, probably would create a wedge between Taiwan and its two closest allies, Japan and the United States. In the months leading up to the current crisis, Chinese media launched a sustained campaign to encourage the perception that Taiwan—which also claims the Diaoyu islets as its own—and China were working together against “outside aggressors” in the East and South China Sea, despite repeated denials by the government in Taipei (Taipei Times, September 18, People’s Daily September 17).


  1. For an analysis of PLA influence on external policy through the use of official publications, see Taylor Fravel and Alexander Liebman, “Beyond the Moat: The PLAN’s Evolving Interests and Potential Influence,” The Chinese Navy: Expanding capabilities, evolving roles, Phillip C. Saunders, Christopher D. Yung, Michael Swaine, and Andrew Nien-Dzu Yang, eds, Washington: National Defense University,
  2. For useful background on the origins and impact of the war of 1894-95, see S.C.M. Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, power and primacy, New York: Cambridge, 2003. 
  3. Author’s Correspondence with a China-based Analyst, September 2012.