Rising Tensions in Northeast Asia: Views from China, Japan, and South Korea on Territorial Disputes

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.

  • 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.”


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.”