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Japan and China: Building Up or Backing Down Over Disputed Islands?

Behind nationalist bluster, the governments of Japan and China are being surprisingly careful in regards to their maritime disputes. 
Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/AP

The Asia-Pacific region has been the scene of simmering geopolitical and military tensions for years, but there might be some hidden signs that the region is cooling off, at least a little bit. The region has long been home to both strong nationalism and high-tech militaries, so anything that reduces tensions is as welcome as it is rare.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's re-election in December was a reaffirmation of the Prime Minister's bold political positions, including a more assertive national security and defense strategy. According to documents obtained by Bloomberg, Japan's defense spending will increase from 4.84 trillion yen up to 4.98 trillion yen ($42.33 billion) for the fiscal year starting in April — versus the 5.05 trillion yen that was requested in August. This is the third straight increase, reversing more than a decade of previous cuts to defense spending, with the total now accounting for 5 percent of the country's budget.

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The Abe administration is also looking to build on last year's reinterpretation of Japanese Constitutional limits on the use and deployment of the Japanese military, making it easier to deploy military units outside of Japan. In non-combat capacities — like logistical support — forces will still only be deployable to areas where they will not encounter hostile forces. However, this measure would change the rules for sending Japanese forces abroad, eliminating the requirement for legislative approval in the case of non-combat deployments.

At the same time, Japan is looking to boost sales of defense products — something else that was previously unthinkable. Now Japan is actively marketing Soryu-class submarines to Australia, who is currently in the middle of a massive debate over the fate of its submarine force. More recently, Japan has offered its P-1 anti-submarine patrol aircraft to the UK, who is choosing among options for replacing its aging fleet of maritime patrol aircraft.

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Further, when Prime Minister Abe assembled his new cabinet following his re-election, he replaced only one senior official: the Defense Minister, who was ousted following a corruption scandal. Gen Nakatani, the new minister, is a graduate of Japan's National Defense Academy — the Japanese West Point. During his time in the Ground Self-Defense Force, which is what Japan calls its Army, Nakatani served as an infantry officer and completed Ranger certification.

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Nakatani's appointment has raised some concerns. As a member of the Parliament, the new defense minister was linked to Nippon Kaigi, a nationalistic organization that wants to reestablish a more patriotic and religious tone to Japanese affairs and undo some post-war changes to Japanese society. More distressingly, Japanese nationalists have taken a decidedly revisionist stance on the whole issue of World War II conduct and war crimes throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

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Given region's strong nationalist sentiments, these developments are all easy fodder for politicians and the press who have skilled at detecting the slightest nationalist bluster, threat, or insult.

This environment is what makes a recent confirmation of work on a maritime crisis hotline so surprising and welcome. According to the Japan Times, Defense Minister Nakatani recently announced that Japan and China will be establishing a hotline and crisis management measures to head off disputes in the contested East China Sea around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Talks about such procedures started in September 2012 when Japan effectively took the islands under government control. Although the details still are under negotiation, such measures are likely to involve a number of purely technical measures, such as agreeing on common communications frequencies and establishing common procedures. Overall, the intent is to make sure that encounters between Chinese and Japanese aircraft or ships don't result in accidents or incidents that could flare into international incidents.

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Surprisingly, this decrease in tensions is not being matched by a softening in the respective negotiating positions. Last November, both China and Japan issued similar — but nowhere near identical — four point statements about their views on the situation. Basically the Chinese version says that both parties dispute control over the sea and air in the region, because the ownership of the islands is disputed. The Japanese version essentially says both countries dispute control over the sea and air of the region, because China unilaterally declared an enormously large Air Defense Identification Zone or ADIZ. Thus, the Chinese pretend that their out-of-the-blue declaration of a huge ADIZ wasn't a dick move. Meanwhile, the Japanese are yelling "I Can't Hear You" and pretending the Chinese don't think there's a dispute about the ownership of the islands. By issuing these statements jointly, both sides are tacitly agreeing that the other side is wrong, but won't listen.

Meanwhile, the real life military standoff is showing signs of slowly tapering off. Apparently Chinese ships are making fewer and fewer incursions into the territorial waters surrounding the Senkakus. This continual decrease in the rate incursions near the islands plus the negotiations on a crisis management hotline suggests the Chinese and Japanese decision makers have as little interest in pushing their claims as they do in backing down from them.

It could be that China was effectively trying to startle Japan off the rocks with a diplomatic and naval ruckus. Or that Japan's more aggressive defense posture in recent years has deterred China from pressing their case and is making them back off. Or it might just be a great big noisy and pointless spat between neighbors who can't really stand each other. Or maybe it's part of a two-phase effort to change facts on the ground before moving in for a showdown. Heck, for that matter, it could even be that US-led calls for confidence and trust building measures, such as the promotion of an international Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), have paid off and helped reduce tensions in the region.

Whatever the "real" reason for all this is, it's pretty clear that at the point of contact between these two political-military presences, it's not just complex and subtle; it's being managed very carefully and deliberately. The longer-term implications of all the posturing throughout the region could take quite some time to shake out as both sides exchange moves and countermoves.

In the end, this whole thing suggests that when the countries of East Asia start testing each other in earnest, there will be good reasons to pay very, very close attention before making any snap judgments. There's likely a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan