President Barack Obama’s reassurance to Japan that the US will abide by its commitment to help defend the country if China seizes a disputed group of islands underscores the longstanding tensions in Northeast Asia. It was immediately and predictably countered by a Chinese ministry spokesman’s riposte that nothing will change "the basic reality that the Diaoyu Islands are China's inherent territory."
This is not the first time, nor is it likely the last Northeast Asian crises frequently present such recurring patterns in their development. Observing these developments and contrasting them to past events allows us to understand the dynamics of escalation and de-escalation of tensions.
If we observe the rise and fall in tensions concerning the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, we find recurring behaviors in cases when tensions were sparked by either China or Japan. Recent circumstances in the South Korea-Japan-China triangle, which include Japan’s rapprochement to South Korea and anti-government protests in China, point to a rise in regional frictions.
There is a common narrative that dictates the dynamics of diplomacy in Northeast Asia. This narrative entails holding onto the pain suffered at the hands of Japanese troops during and before WWII. Therefore, the many crises of this region, all subjected to this communal mood, cannot be dissociated from each other. As such, the recent apparent détente between Japan and South Korea may have consequences elsewhere.
On April 16th, the two countries held official talks to address the matter of the Korean victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese military during WWII known as the "comfort woman" issue.
This was the first time that Japan had agreed to officially comment on this issue, a source of continual frictions between the two neighbors. Prior to this meeting, Shinzo Abe had announced publicly that his government would not revise the Kono statement of 1993, in which Japan had apologized to Korea for the hardship it caused during the war.
The remarks from Japan’s PM came as a bit of a surprise, as they put him in a delicate position in regard to his party, the LDP, which was pushing for a revision of the Kono statement. Since Abe took office in December 2012, he has stood up to his reputationas a nationalist and a hawkish politician. For example, shortly after he was elected as head of the right wing LDP, Abe paid his first visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which was considered a very provocative move towards its neighbors.
However, more recently, Japanese politics seem to be experiencing a shift. As Shunsuke Hirose wrote in The Diplomat, the LDP is encountering a phase of internal discord that might jeopardize not only Abe himself, but also the entire region’s stability.
We have seen in several occasions in the past how the fragmentation in Japan’s political scene has been at the origin of the rise in tensions between Japan and its neighbors. A clear example of this is the escalation of tensions with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2012 when dissident groups of the Japanese Diet, shepherded by the right wing extremist and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, were able to pressure the Japanese government into buying the islands, which ultimately led to diplomatic and economic strains between China and Japan.
The easing of Abe’s approach towards South Korea regarding the comfort women issue could instigate right wing factions in Japan. SpikesinJapanese nationalism in the past have always led to a rise in tensions between Japan and the rest of the region. These expressions of nationalism can come in different forms: visits to the war memorial Yasukuni shrine, revision of history textbooks clearing Japan from its war misdeeds, activists taking a trip to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, etc. These actions are regarded as provocative, as they reveal an unapologetic Japan, and are often at the origin of diplomatic wrangles.
Standing in the other corner of the triangle is China. As much as the rest of the cohort of this triad, China makes frequent use of a number of diplomatic tactics to serve its own ends. For instance, we have seen on many occasions how the Chinese government has used anti-Japanese sentiment to divert public attention from domestic issues. This was exemplified in March 2011, when Beijing provoked tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue by sending military aircraft close to the islands and announcing it was unilaterally exploiting the disputed gas fields in the area in order to deflect public attention from the anti-government protests in the country.
Observing the recurrent nature of this behavior by Chinese authorities, Doug Young comments, in his book The Party Line, that “the Party in China is able to do so [divert public attention] through the use of several diplomatic and political tactics, such as media blackout on the issue of anti-government protests, and ‘sudden interest’ in printing anything anti-Japanese they can find in their bid to stir up negative public sentiment.”
These past few weeks have seen the largest anti-government protests of recent times erupt in China. Over 30,000 factory workers have taken the streets in protest to poor working conditions and unpaid social insurance payments. The demonstrations are an effect of the economic slowdown in China that has caused the labor market to shrink. Considering that this situation is widespread across China, it is likely that protests will continue.
Several factors are therefore pointing towards either Japan or China making use of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute for their internal political expediencies. In the case of China, to divert public attention from anti-government protests, and in the case of Japan, in order to cater to the right wing groups' frustration at Abe’s softening towards South Korea. Either way, both countries could use a disruption at the moment, and these little rocks are always there to do the job.