Will China and Japan Go to War Over the Senkaku Islands?

Japan bought them last year, but the Chinese have sent in their warships.

Ben Makuch

Ben Makuch

While the world deals with another round of North Korean nuclear war threats, another less obvious conflict is looming in South-Asia, involving old-time foes and a potentially revitalised rivalry.

The Japanese and Chinese are squaring off in a simmering marine conflict over the disputed chain of little-known, uninhabited Senkaku islands in the South China Sea. The issue started back in 1895, when the Japanese central government – in the nascent stages of their nationalist and imperialist phase – annexed the islands. Like anything else that was Japanese by the end of WWII, the US occupied the Senkakus, only to cede the land to Japanese interests in 1972 when oil and gas reserves were found off the coast.

Naturally, potential oil revenues and additional island territory piqued the interests of the Chinese and Taiwanese, both of whom have territorial proximity to the islands and declare ownership to this day. To give you an idea how confusing the competing claims are on the eight tiny islands, they’re actually all called four different things depending on your nationality: Senkaku Islands by the Japanese, Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese, Tiaoyutai Islands by Taiwanese and the Pinnacle Islands if you’re an English speaker.

Japanese control of the islands caused violent anti-Japanese protests in China in 2010, where bad blood from Japan's WWII invasion of the country still lingers. Tensions between the two regional powers intensified in September last year when the Japanese government formally purchased the islands from a private Japanese family, making them officially state-held land. As for the Taiwanese – well, other than signing a fishing treaty with Japan that allows their trawlers near the disputed islands, they’re basically playing third fiddle to the dispute going on between their larger neighbours.

Meanwhile, China and Japan have both been sending their own nationalist groups to survey the islands and make competing claims of sovereignty. Meanwhile, their respective navies lurk nearby – Chinese warships circled the islands just a few weeks ago. When high-ranking defence officials from both nations met to discuss the problem last month, the Japanese registered their unease with the continued presence of Chinese naval vessels near the islands – in January, one locked its weapons-guidance radar onto a Japanese destroyer.

According to regional observers, an all-out naval conflict between the two countries is highly unlikely (one expert says it's “as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series”), but the boiling tensions over controlling space on a map is still reminiscent of the old nationalist days from decades ago. The dispute is, in fact, more indicative of the shifting power balance in the region and of the Asian arms race – one that’s inspired an increased focus on naval strength, pitting Japan, China and other minor players like Vietnam (who allied with the Japanese recently) against one another.

It’s worth noting that the Chinese aren’t just claiming the Senkakus. They’ve been brazenly claiming everything their ambitious imperial paws can latch onto when it comes to the South China Sea (approximately 80 percent of it, according to the New York Times). For example, earlier this year a Chinese ship shot flares at Vietnamese fishermen in waters off the Paracel archipelago. The Chinese are on touchy ground with this one; the Paracels were claimed after a nasty 1974 war with Vietnam and the Vietnamese have wanted them back ever since.

While the Senkaku conflict is partly just another blade of grass in the meadow of Chinese expansionist disputes, it’s not an altogether unprecedented issue between both countries: Japan and China have traditionally been the competing powers of South Asia (or, at least for the last hundred years or so). What the competition for these islands more likely represents is the first real 21st century tête-à-tête between the Chinese and an increasingly militarily-autonomous Japan as they both assert their power.

The other thing to remember is the American pivot to the Pacific from Europe and the Middle East, and their interest in policing and influencing a region where a nice chunk of their economic interests lie. Obama's plans to station 2,500 troops on Australian soil seems to be part of a larger plan to contain Chinese dominance and make the rising superpower nervous, but the Chinese have claimed that it's that exact move that's destabilised the region and forced them to act boldly.

As the world talks jealously of the Chinese surge to superpower status, what you might not have heard about is the growing strength of Japan, both militarily and economically. Although the military beef-up of China has been well documented (particularly their naval spending), there’s also reason to believe their defence plan is overstretching the actual capabilities of their armed forces. Some even consider their navy misguided and severely outdated, specifically the Chinese fixation on aircraft carriers, which is apparently so Cold War.

Conversely, the Americans (who are closely allied to the Japanese navy) are very much in the now, literally preparing to deploy laser guns on their new warships. On top of that, Japan’s navy is actually not-so-secretly roughly four times the size of the British Royal Navy, boasting sophisticated modernised systems, and has also profited from joint training missions with the US. China's navy, however, isn't even yet capable of long distance naval missions and – although they're growing more robust on a ship-to-ship basis – lack a strong officer corps who have been tested and trained to the same standards as their rivals.

On top of all that, the technologically-obsessed Japanese, with their higher quality of life and strong central government, are probably better equipped than a China whose citizens are still wrestling poverty and a lagging internet infrastructure.

“I think Japan is certainly on the rise, and perhaps in a much stronger way than China,” said Rodger Baker, Stratfor’s Director of Analysis for East and South Asia.

“[Japan is] better positioned; they’ve got a lot more internal cohesion and, in the end, it’s very hard to hold together that Chinese empire,” he said.

“We see the struggles [China] have had since their major market in Europe went into its decline […] in their ability to manage their economy and their society. They’re facing a very similar crisis to other Asian countries that had followed the same sort of broad economic path of export and rapid growth without ever really worrying during those times about trying to build in efficiency and sustainability.”

Japan, on the other hand, steadily developed their economy for the export of industry, which positions them far better for sustained success in a globalised marketplace. While the Japanese are global leaders at developing futuristic things like talking robots, the Chinese are still burning far too much coal.

Baker also thinks there’s a low possibility of conflict – especially the intentional kind, as neither nation are interested in such a clash.

“China is really not prepared to take Japan on in a larger naval war; Japan is really not interested in a larger naval war with the Chinese at this time. Both countries are working to keep things under control,” he said.

“Your chances for an escalation come with accidents – things like a fishing accident or a couple of these civilian patrol ships running into each other. You have something that leads to one of them sinking or being heavily damaged, then both of the countries start to bring in their naval vessels, which could lead to some sort of escalation.”

Baker says if that ever happened it would likely reflect the naval clashes between North and South Korea on the west coast of the Korean peninsula. In those episodes, both nations engaged in sharp but short maritime clashes where one or two boats sunk, then both countries retreated, never leading to a broader conflict.

If nothing else, Chinese assertiveness when it comes to the Senkakus may have just forced their enemy into military spending and a more assertive foreign policy. For the first time in 11 years, the Japanese announced increasing their defence budget a modest 0.8 percent to 4.68 trillion yen (£33.5 billion). Although they’re not nearly spending at American levels just yet, the increase is notable for a nation that was defeated into near-total pacification and disarmament 68 years ago.

Whatever this petty territorial conflict between them actually ends up yielding, either armed conflict or continued bickering (more likely the latter), one thing is for sure: the North Koreans are still the biggest wildcard in the region.

Graphics courtesy of Stratfor

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