Home > Applying Political Science, Foreign Policy, International Relations, University of the Pacific > Get Off My Island! Conflicting Claims in the East China Sea

Get Off My Island! Conflicting Claims in the East China Sea

Senkaku Islands

Senkaku Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last fall, I blogged about China’s rise as it relates to its broad claims to islands in the South China Sea, also claimed by a number of South East Asian states. Since that post, China has become significantly more aggressive in both actions and words regarding these disputes. It is worth noting that the Obama administration has been fairly aggressive in its response, with Secretary Clinton particularly active in making clear U.S. interests in the region.

More recently, conflicting Chinese and Japanese claims to islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have heated up and made headlines. It is, therefore, worth analyzing why China would risk violent confrontation over eight uninhabited islands with a total square footage of less than five miles and whose Chinese name means “fishing islands.” What does international relations theory suggest as to why China would choose the present to begin more strongly pressing its claims?

As with all problems in international relations, history, domestic politics and relative power in the international system all play a role. The history that most strongly informs Sino-Japanese relations today is Japans’ making what had been the Chinese province of Taiwan a colony after winning the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895; losing one big island for more than a century makes a state a bit touchy about little ones. China’s tributary relationship with the Ryuku Kingdom, including today’s Okinawa, was also ended by the Treaty of Shimonoseki, with which that first war concluded. It is further in 1895 that Japan made its first official claim to Senkaku, placing the islands administratively into what is today Okinawa prefecture. The Treaty of San Francisco, formally ending World War II in 1952, specifically rules out Japanese claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands, those in the South China Sea about which I posted last year. More important here, the treaty gave the United States trusteeship of the Nansei Shoto islands, including Senkaku.

It does not ease Chinese concerns that the end of World War II saw the United States controlling Okinawa until 1972 (whereby the United States also ceded control of Senkaku back to Japan) and setting up what is still the largest air base in the region there. It is also the United States that has stood between China and what it considers to be its province of Taiwan, first with multiple military bases and nuclear weapons on the island and then, following the switch of diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) in 1979, its policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which leaves unstated whether the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese moves to retake it. Complicating the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is the fact that Taiwan’s government also claims the islands. Of course, China’s government has less concern over Taiwan’s claim, as in its view any territory under Taiwanese administration is Chinese territory. In fact, it is Taiwanese administration of the islands that China claims predates Japanese claims.

While it is often argued that the Taiwanese and Chinese governments did not begin objecting to Japanese control of the islands until natural gas was discovered in the area at the end of the 20th century, documents released by the U.S. National Security Archives show that the Taiwan (ROC) government, then the government recognized by the United States as “China,” specifically requested “the United States to exclude the Senkaku Islands from the reversion of Okinawa to Japan” in March 1971. Nevertheless, a 1968 UN survey had shown potential oil and gas resources in the region, so it is possible that this has motivated Chinese/Taiwanese claims.

The legitimacy of each side’s historical claims in the East China Sea is less important than the historical animosity between the two states, their governments, and their citizens. From the Chinese perspective, Japan humiliated it by taking its biggest island and than using it to expand its reach over much of Asia, including much of China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which became part of World War II. Japanese occupation of of mainland Chinese territory was particularly brutal.

In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2012/0905/China-territorial-disputes-a-warning-in-the-history-of-Imperial-Japan) , Joseph Bosco, who worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in East Asian security affairs and retired Lietenant General Wallace Gregson, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, somewhat ironically suggest that China’s current aggressive behavior regarding maritime claims is similar to that of a rising Japan in the first half of the 20th century. They argue that China today resembles a pre-WWII Japan, stinging from humiliation by Western powers, who had forced trade relations on it in the previous century. Like Japan in that period, China’s growing economic strength has led to a concomitant expansion of military power, which these authors claim enhances Chinese ambitions to expand its territorial control beyond its current borders, much as Japan did as it sought control over resources in much of Asia in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The authors’ analogy breaks down, however, when they compare Chinese ambitions to Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, which saw the Japanese gain physical control of China’s industrial and business centers as well as nearly all of Southeast Asia, if only briefly. Comparing Chinese claims to rocks and islands which are nearly all uninhabited, to Japan’s physical control of the Philippines, Indonesia, the Malay peninsula, Indochina and other territories that had been controlled by Western colonial powers is absurd.

IR Theory
Bosco and Gregson quote Secretary Clinton during a recent Beijing press conference: “Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.” What Clinton is referring to is Organski’s power transition theory, which like all realist theory, views the anarchic international system and relative capabilities of states as the key determinants of international relations.* The key hypothesis of the theory is that major wars occur when a rising power challenges a declining power, just as John Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism” predicts coming conflict between the United States and China. An obvious counter-example to the argument of Clinton and Mearheimer, is the case of the United States, which unlike a rising Germany, did anything but challenge the United Kingdom at the point the two countries reached military or economic parity. Power transition theory explains away this anomaly by adding relative satisfaction with the current system as a key determinant of whether a rising power engages in conflict. Whereas offensive realism predicts inevitable conflict as China rises and (relatively) the United States falls, power transition theory suggests that war is likely only if China is dissatisfied with the current system. It is often assumed that China is. However, it is important to ponder why a China that has gained so much from the current system would be so quick to change it.

The weakness in realist theory is in its singular focus on the international system, at the expense of domestic determinants, to explain international politics. The history-minded Chinese leadership is undoubtedly aware that Germany and Japan failed in their challenges to the global order, and, therefore, that China should not press its claims too hard while still relatively weak. Thus it is necessary to consider domestic political reasons for China’s more aggressive posture regarding its maritime claims. First, and most self-evident, securing China’s sovereignty brings the Communist Party greater legitimacy. However, that does not explain the recent shift in Chinese assertiveness, unless the Party believes its legitimacy is threatened. This would be a more tenable hypothesis if the Party were facing eminent economic decline, as rapid development has provided the Party legitimacy in the post-Mao era.

What does possibly explain China’s more assertive maritime policies is the increasing influence of the military in Chinese politics and the rise of nationalism and, more important, its use in the factional struggle preceding this year’s scheduled leadership transition. Vice President Xi Jinping, who only recently reappeared on the scene after a mysterious brief disappearance, is by all accounts scheduled to succeed Hu Jintao as president at the 18th Party Congress, which appears to have been delayed from its originally scheduled October dates. A number of reports suggest that China’s outgoing leadership is attempting to ratchet up tensions with Japan so that Hu can retain his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission after Xi becomes president, just as Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin delayed Hu’s appointment to this post as commander in chief for two years after Hu’s elevation to the presidency.

Xi’s disappearance, changing dates for the Party Congress, and rising tensions with Japan are all likely related to factional struggles taking place prior to China’s decennial leadership transition. Even in authoritarian regimes, or perhaps especially in authoritarian regimes, there is bargaining over political positions, with each faction trying to balance its power relative to others. Xi is part of the “princelings” faction, the sons and daughters of the first generation of PRC leaders, while Hu is part of the “Youth League Clique,” former members of the Communist Party Youth League. The military is also part of this bargaining, as one of the many factions seeking representation on the ruling Politburo.

All of this palace intrigue, not to mention the recent soap opera-like downfall of Bo Xilai, another princeling, is likely influencing Chinese policies in the East and South China Seas. Due to the opaque nature of the political system however, it is difficult to gauge the extent that China’s leadership is promoting the anti-Japanese ultra-nationalism in China or responding to it. China’s leaders need to be careful playing the nationalism card. As the cases of Japan and Germany indicate, extremist nationalism, once out of the bag, takes on a life of its own. China’s leaders may find themselves being wagged rather than doing the wagging, in other words, having their actions determined or constrained by nationalism, rather than simply encouraging nationalism to enhance their legitimacy.

China’s recent guiding principle with regards to its territorial disputes has been to put these contentious issues aside for the sake of developing economic relations, and the government still claims this is what it wishes to do (although actions by its own and foreign nationals may make this impossible). Waiting, of course, is in China’s interest, as in all likelihood its power will only continue to rise, particularly relative to a Japan confronted by economic stagnation and the demographic nightmare of a declining population.

As if on cue, between the initial draft of this article last week and today, anti-Japanese protests have broken out in many major Chinese cities

*It should be noted that power transition theorists view the international system as hierarchical rather than anarchic and were arguing against the traditional realist balance-of-power school, but, practically speaking neorealism also relies on hierarchy; both theories, or branches of realism, claim that it is relative capabilities that bring order to the international system.

  1. bklunk
    September 18, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I hope this is pretty enough for the author.

  2. Jonathan
    September 18, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Impressive post – you managed to pack a lot in, covering an exceptionally eventful couple of weeks for China watchers. A question: you point out the weakness of realist theory in interpreting the PRC’s foreign policy, ie. systemic vs. domestic pressures; which IR theory do you think does a better job of explaining China’s foreign policy decisions? Please keep the interesting posts coming – always insightful and thought-provoking.

    • September 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      Jonathan, I am not a proponent of the -isms schools of IR theory; each offers interesting insights but fail at what a theory designed to explain state interaction should do: explain state interaction. It is my belief that it is not possible to explain interstate relations without understanding the domestic politics of the relevant states, except at the most superficial level. Under the IR umbrella, IPE theories do a much better job of considering the effects of domestic interest groups on foreign policy.

      • Bailey
        September 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm

        A very good read Dr. O’Neill. Just read an article with a similar approach to IR analysis by Bahgat Korany (AUC ex-faculty I think?). He calls it “Intermestics.”

  3. September 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Jonathan, I am not a proponent of the -isms schools of IR theory; each offers interesting insights but fail at what a theory designed to explain state interaction should do: explain state interaction, let alone predict it.

  4. Andrew Merenda
    September 18, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Whew, that was a lot of reading… but what a great read, well done! I have a question concerning what you stated towards the end of the first paragraph under “IR Theory”:

    “…offensive realism predicts inevitable conflict as China rises and (relatively) the United States falls, power transition theory suggests that war is likely only if China is dissatisfied with the current system. It is often assumed that China is. However, it is important to ponder why a China that has gained so much from the current system would be so quick to change it.”

    So if China has so much to gain from the current status quo, then why would they have the desire to change it? What other interest could they possibly have that would motivate them to change it? And can we expect to see more cooperation through China’s interactions with other states in future or will they continue to express hostile behavior as they have with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island?

    • September 20, 2012 at 10:36 pm

      Andrew, as I have mentioned here and in class, the weakness of these “structural” theories is in minimizing the agency of individual actors and the effects that domestic politics can have on foreign policy. Currently, by patrolling much of the world, including the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, the US promotes peace and global trade. But as nationalism rises in China (whether organically or as a tool of the leadership) there might be pressures for the Chinese leadership to contain the regional reach of the USA. As I mentioned in class, just imagine if Chinese ships were patrolling the Gulf of Mexico!
      The balancing act for the Chinese leadership is a difficult one; on the one hand, regional peace is essential for continued economic development, but as China becomes more powerful, there are interests that wish to assert China’s new found power (and particularly become the humiliator rather than the humiliated). The trick, I believe, is to pick small fights that satisfy nationalists but do not threaten stability. However, many a small fight has turned into a free-for-all.

      • bklunk
        September 21, 2012 at 9:18 am

        I blame Thucydides and that whole “strong do what they will, weak do what they must” thing.

  5. Melissa Blakemore
    September 20, 2012 at 7:19 am

    I have to start off with saying I love the name of this blog post “Get of my Island!”
    I knew there was some disputes over islands in Asia but I did not know it was to this extent. A part that stood out to is ”
    From the Chinese perspective, Japan humiliated it by taking its biggest island and than using it to expand its reach over much of Asia, including much of China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which became part of World War II. Japanese occupation of of mainland Chinese territory was particularly brutal.” Its interesting to see nthe two differing perspectives on the same event.
    Overall I found this post to be very informative!

  6. Lexa Buerer
    September 20, 2012 at 8:47 am

    I find it interesting that China is trying to establish itself as one of the worlds most powerful countries although as a nation, it is still currently weak. I would have to I agree that it wouldn’t make much sense to engage in an attempt to change the current system since China benefits from the current system 

    • September 20, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      I’m curious, Lexa (not necessarily disagreeing), in what ways do you believe China is a weak nation?

  7. Jordyn Doyle
    September 20, 2012 at 11:50 am

    This went into more depth than our short beginning of class conversations while you set up your computer. I think that the Chinese are being sore losers but at the same time acting power hungry. China may be growing but that doesn’t give them a right to exclaim that Okinawa belongs to them. I think that some type of solution needs to be made up, one that shows the Chinese how they’re wrong.

  8. john yonke
    September 20, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Regarding your comments on the possibility that Chinese leaders are promoting the anti-Japan ultra-nationalism outlook, I don’t necessarily believe that this has to be the case. From a Chinese perspective, there are obvious advantages of expansion, even of mostly uninhibited islands. I find it unlikely (although completely possible) that China is making these moves with the purpose of an outright affront to Japan. The advantages of expansion outweigh the “advantages” of beefing with Japan, and therefore I believe it is the most probable motivation for such action.

  9. Jesus Hernandez
    September 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    This is a great demonstration of China’s rise to power. There is always the possibility of war between two disputing powers; however, it is most definite that China is aware of the failure of rising countries in the past attempting to expand through force. The only viable hypothesis of the possibility of war between the US and China would be if China set up an alliance with a neighboring country; hint, hint, North Korea.

  10. sherie salomonsson
    September 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I found it interesting how the beginning of this article related China to a Pre-WW2 Japan. I can see how this makes sense since there economy has grown, and an expansion of military power followed. Yet, I don’t see why it would be necessary for them to try and take the Philippines, Indonesia etc. like Japan had done in the 1940’s. Japans rising nationalism was the reason for this during WW2, since they were controlled by western colonial powers, but for China to try and expand there boarders today seems completely absurd. I think that with their economic growth and military expansion China should be focusing on developing economic relations with other countries, not using their newly found power to promote nationalism and expand their territories.

  11. Chris Runnels
    September 20, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    With a weakening Japan and an imminent transition of power in the Chinese government, I think it is all too likely that the current leaders are stirring up this conflict for purely political reasons. As for these anti-Japanese protests, perhaps the nationalism is already “out of the bag.” At least it isn’t focused on us.

  12. donna lara
    September 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    After reading this article, I’ve concluded that China has become extremely power hungry and like any growing nation the more they get the more they want. Unfortunately China is taking this greed to the extreme without anything to hold them back from being overpowering. They cant just claim Okinawa because they decide to. This will lead to another big war and they should already know that wars with a nation at fault always end with that one greedy nation at fault for everything. The bad guy never wins.

  13. bklunk
    September 21, 2012 at 9:24 am

    The history of US foreign policy can be instructive here. The US as early as 1789 had imperial ambitions, which it largely fulfilled. But the US did not pursue a consistently expansionist strategy in pursuing its imperial ambitions. Sometimes it appeased stronger powers and sometimes it was less expansionist than its relative power would have allowed it to be. The reasons have to do both with the “balance of power” and the state of domestic politics in the US. Why should China be different?

  14. September 21, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Reblogged this on theconservativehillbilly.

  15. September 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Here’s an article about the motivations for assertiveness on the Japanese side.

  16. Rizelle Dizon
    September 22, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    I apprecited the comparison of China to a pre WWII Japan because I was not aware of how eventful things have been in China so this article seemed a bit abstract to me at first, and the comparison really helped me understand the motivations and perspective of China. At first I thought to myself, what’s so great about a couple of islands that don’t even begin to compare with the massive size of China? Along with the expansion of military power, China’s growing economic strength must have really boosted their nationalistic ambitions in that they are so aggressive about claiming these tiny islands (that they don’t even need!). I don’t believe that this is neccessary, I respect them for maintaining the strength of their economy and their gradual growth as a world power, but China needs to calm down… Soon enough, I feel that Japan is gonna really tell them how they feel and its going to be a huge mess.

  17. Monique
    October 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    This article was very interesting to me because I never looked this in depth of the events that include china as well as their decisions. After reading this article you begin to realize how power hungry they are and how stupid it is for them to be this way. They are already large enough and just because of their military expansion and and economic growth in no way means they need to also expand how large they are. All they are going to do is cause more problems, when the smart thing to do would be building relations with others.

  18. L.Hira
    October 3, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    China seems like all they want is power and I feel that they will get all the power they want considering the fact they are one of the largest countries in the world growing both economically and population wise. However, that dies not give them the right to take over Okinawa just because they have the “power” to do so. Unless China wants a dispute with with them I think they should think twice before acting on their idea. Greed is blinding and they will definitely regret any decision they make out of wrong intentions like that.

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