Rising Tensions in Northeast Asia: Views from China, Japan, and South Korea on Territorial Disputes
Tensions have flared again in Northeast Asia over disputed islands, with Japan in the middle of two territorial controversies over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands with China and South Korea, respectively. Recent developments have especially strained the relations between China and Japan. This post examines commentary in China, Japan and South Korea.
While the anti-Japanese protests in China reflect what RPI experts David Shambaugh and Ren Xiao call a fiercely nationalistic or Nativist viewpoint, the deluge of commentary in the officially-sanctioned media have expressed a Realist view that focuses on major power competition in the region.
- Alongside assertions of China’s usual position of sovereignty over the disputed islands, thePeople’s Daily pinpoints Japan as “totally responsible” for escalating tensions, though its own editorials are mixed on placing the blame on Japan’s domestic right-wingers and characterizing the entire Japanese nation as a “fickle country…incapable to walk out of the shadow of an aggressive war.”
- While the Global Times expressed support for concurrent Chinese military exercises in the East China Sea, saying they have “come at the right time,” it also stressed that “Chinese need to be clear that China cannot retrieve the [Diaoyu] Islands now. This would mean a large-scale war, which is not in China’s interests.”
- Various editorials are also criticizing the U.S. for enabling or supporting Japan’s assertiveness, with Japan becoming the “deputy sheriff of Asia for the United States.” ThePeople’s Daily also strongly criticized US-Japan joint military drills aimed at taking back islands: “Despite knowing that it is useless to conduct the island capturing exercise, the United States and Japan are in high spirits. The two countries know exactly that it is just a petty trick to enrage China.“
- At the same time, the papers have called for domestic calm. Regarding the assault on the vehicle of the Japanese ambassador to China, even the usually strident Global Times urged the Chinese people to “remain calm and civilized when expressing their patriotism. Any actions and protests must remain within the law.” In another expression of pragmatism, a People’s Daily op-ed by a researcher of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation outlined why the Chinese should not boycott Japanese products.
Editorials in Japan uniformly called for Japanese leaders to deal with the dispute in a calm, rational manner, rather than falling prey to “nationalistic sentiments,” reflecting to some extent a “Balancer” school of thought, as characterized by RPI experts Narushige Michishita and Richard J. Samuels.
- Hitoshi Tanaka, a retired Japanese diplomat, stated that China and South Korea’s growing economic might has weakened Japan’s leverage in the island disputes. He urged stakeholders to handle the territorial flare-ups with “cool professionalism.” “For bureaucrats, this means proposing only rational policies; for politicians, it means making only sensible decisions and accounting for them to the public; and the media must at all costs avoid sensationalism and extremist thinking.”
- The Asahi Shimbun agreed, noting that leaders in both countries should “grow up” and discuss the island disputes in a calm manner, rather than exchanging tit-for-tat measures that only serve to provoke the issue further.
Opinion in Korea varied between blaming Japan for heightened tensions and calling for meetings to discuss the territorial disputes.
- The conservative Chosun Ilbo called for a calm but firm response, while placing the blame for escalating tensions on Japan. “Japan must surely realize that the reason for heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries is its stubborn refusal to do what it needs to do…But the Korea government too must not fall into the mode of thinking that it can say whatever it wants to say, because that inevitably exacerbates conflict.”
- The Hankyoreh was slightly critical of President Lee Myung-bak’s recent visit to the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, arguing that “Lee did bring some of this upon himself.” Rather than “trying to win temporary points through nationalism, the leaders in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo ought to be taking steps to eliminate the potential for conflict through mutual understanding and cooperation. If necessary, they should hold an emergency trilateral summit meeting to achieve this.”