China and Japan have been sparring over a group of tiny uninhabited islands for six years. It usually happens that China passes ships near the eight islets, which it calls the Diaoyudao, and Japan protests after making them leave. Japan has effective day-to-day control of the island group that’s 410 km (250 miles) west of Okinawa. China has sent vessels into surrounding Japanese-policed waters on 31 days this year, sparking about as many protests from Tokyo, which also has stepped up patrols over the islets it calls the Senkakus. China had deescalated the threat of conflict in 2014, but now this. Something new is up this year.
Beijing is now pursuing de facto control over the oil and gas-rich East China Sea around the islets. And it’s gradually getting its way.
If enough coast guard vessels or Chinese flag-bearing fishing boats pass through the waters contested with Japan, they will be able to haul in some seafood — proof of meaningful access — while reminding other countries regularly of its claims despite whatever Japan says. Or at least remind other countries it has the hardware and willpower to asset its claim indefinitely, putting Japan on a constant defensive without being able to do much about the next incursion. (Taiwan also claims the Senkakus but seldom takes action that puts in on center stage.)
“They want to show especially to Japan but to all the regional actors that they are holding de facto control, no matter what legal experts have interpreted or any historical archives,” says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “China has the resources to burn as much gas they need to do it.”
The United States held the islets from World War II through 1972 when it gave those and other small Western Pacific land features to Japan. Officials in Beijing believe Chinese people had discovered, named and fished the islets first. It has cited records going back to the Ming Dynasty some 400 years ago. It’s almost the same argument you hear as Beijing explores and militarizes parts of the South China Sea, a campaign that has kicked up since 2012 as undersea oil and gas there become more apparent. China happens to operate the world’s third biggest military.
This picture taken on January 26, 2013 shows a vendor talking on a telephone at a market stall in Shanghai that sells fish claimed to have been caught in the waters off the disputed Diaoyu islands. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
“Against the backdrop of China’s growing military power, the island dispute has increased concerns in Tokyo about Beijing’s regional intentions and the adequacy of Japan’s security, while stoking nationalistic politics in both capitals,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Sheila Smith says in a 2013 report.
Control by nonstop action is an old strategy for the Communist leadership. The one-party government was never elected in China but holds comfortably onto power largely by doing things to keep the massive country together. That effort means, for example, easing poverty and fostering growth of the world’s second largest economy.
So when China sent four coast guard ships into Japanese-controlled waters for two hours on Sunday, it was just another step in its manifest destiny-style approach toward the oceans off its coasts. Add to that the Chinese public. Chinese nationals, directed by their government, believe Japan has not adequately atoned for the World War II-era invasion of parts of China and will use its military again someday to hurt other countries. China’s show of strength against Japan now will inspire public confidence in the Communist Party as a defender of Chinese interests, a plus before the party’s 19th National Congress expected this month or next.