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Taiwan and the Diaoyutai Spat: Is All that Noise Really Necessary?

Written by J. Michael Cole.

If a few years ago you had asked people outside the region whether they had ever heard about the Diaoyutai islets, or the Senkakus as they are known in Japan, the likely answer would be that they had not. That this is no longer the case is in large part due to China’s territorial assertiveness — which has recently become militarized — and Japan’s equally hard-noised response to what it regards as dangerous expansionism. The world started paying attention to those rocks in the middle of the East China Sea because it was feared that the dispute could lead to a military confrontation between the two Asia competitors and perhaps even draw in the U.S., Japan’s security partner. Both sides had “historical rights” and various maps and documents to support their claims, but in the end that didn’t matter, as facts rarely matter when nationalism is involved.

The third claimant — Taiwan — doesn’t get mentioned as often in international media and at academic conferences on the subject, in large part because its stance on the issue has been much less bellicose. It briefly made the news when a flotilla of fishing and coast guard vessels were “fired upon” by the Japanese Coast Guard using water cannons, when overzealous military personnel asserted Taiwan’s claims by jotting a few Chinese characters on a Mk-82 500lb bomb carried by a F-16 aircraft, or when President Ma Ying-jeou proposed his “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” but for the most part Taiwan’s role in the dispute has received little world attention. It, too, has provided various legal documents or referenced historical fishing rights to make its case, but without the bluster, its voice was often ignored.

The main reason why Taiwan’s claims have not received as much attention is that it does not have the military resources it would need to take on Japan and/or China in order to “defend” its claimed sovereignty over the islets. On the security side, the strategic location of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets is one of the main reasons behind the dispute between China and Japan; however, as Japan does not threaten to invade Taiwan, whoever controls the islets has no bearing on Taiwan’s security position vis-à-vis Japan.

Perhaps even more importantly, though far less acknowledged, is the fact that unlike Chinese and Japanese nationalists, most Taiwanese couldn’t care less about the islets. Segments of the Taiwanese public paid attention when the dispute with Japan prevented Taiwanese fishermen from making a living, but the fisheries agreement signed in April 2013 by Taipei and Tokyo, after 16 long years of stalled efforts, resolved that matter. In other words, whatever interest most Taiwanese paid to the issue stemmed from practical rather than ideological considerations.

But this is not the picture you will get if you listen to the official rhetoric in Taipei or to members of President Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), both of which emphasize Taiwan’s (or the Republic of China’s) sovereignty claims over the islets. A most recent example of this was the Presidential Office’s reaction to remarks made by former president Lee Teng-hui during a visit to Tokyo, in which he stated that, in his view, the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets are part of Japanese territory. Although Mr. Lee had made similar comments in the past, this time around the response was much more indignant.

Presidential Office spokesperson Charles I-hsin Chen led the charge by accusing Lee of “humiliating the nation” and “forfeiting its sovereignty.” KMT Legislator Wu Yu-sheng followed with claims that Mr. Lee’s comments amounted to “rebellion” and “treason.” Soon afterwards, President Ma, KMT Chairman Eric Chu, and KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu all “reiterated” the ROC’s sovereignty over the islets, while KMT legislators vowed to seek amendments to the Act Governing Preferential Treatment for Retired Presidents and Vice-Presidents to deny Mr. Lee his retirement benefits as a former head of state. Meanwhile, Yok Mu-ming, chairman of the pro-unification New Party, filed a complaint against the former president at the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office.

Although no serious opinion poll has ever been conducted with the Taiwanese public to assess their views on the sovereignty claims, it is highly likely that if one were held, the response would not reflect the KMT’s position, let alone its recent indignation, on the subject. As we saw earlier, the Taiwanese will be vocal if a dispute unjustly affects people’s livelihood (and their access to delectable fish), but their response to the dispute is not nationalistic and they will never support actions that risk harming ties with Japan, a country for which many Taiwanese have a deep affinity. The few Diaoyutai-related street protests that have taken place in recent years have failed to attract large numbers of people and usually assembled pro-unification types (KMT representatives have been conspicuously absent). The majority of Taiwanese has shrugged the matter off and looked on with amusement.

The KMT’s latest response to Mr. Lee’s comments suggests that the party is once again out of touch with public sentiment, a disconnect that cost it dearly last year with the Sunflower Movement and that once again threatens to do so over a school curriculum controversy.

It is also very likely that former president Lee’s remarks provided a hoped-for distraction for the KMT, which is going through an existential crisis over its unpopular (and out-of-sync) presidential candidate, the risks of mutiny among party members and expulsion of five KMT critics, as well as a snowballing controversy over “minor” changes to educational guidelines and a bungled police handling of a recent student occupation of the Ministry of Education.

Rather than address the serious problems it faces, the KMT may be hoping to deflect public discontent onto other figures or by drawing attention to external crises — an age-old tactic among embattled politicians. However, accusations of treason by a former president and appeals to nationalistic sentiment over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets, constitute a poor escape route for the party, as this is unlikely to have much, if any, traction among the Taiwanese public.

For better or worse, most Taiwanese simply don’t care about the contested islets.

J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, an associate researcher with the French Centre for Research Contemporary China (CEFC) and a senior member at the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, an independent think tank founded by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. Follow him on Twitter @JMichaelCole1. Image credit: Michael Cole

 

Sino-Japanese Relations: The Security Perspective

By June Teufel Dreyer.

The recent revelation of two incidents in which Chinese frigates locked target radars onto Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) assets added a new level of escalation to an already tense situation.   Perhaps in order to avoid inflaming these tensions, the Japanese government revealed the incidents only belatedly on February 5—the first incident involved an MSDF helicopter on January 19th, the second, by a different frigate, targeted an MSDF destroyer in the East China Sea on January 30th .  Facing a barrage of criticism from domestic public opinion, the government explained, not entirely convincingly, that it had wanted to be sure before making the information public.

In addition to the danger of the lock-on, an action usually undertaken just before actually firing, the incidents involved a confrontation between the navies of the two countries rather than, as before, the Japanese Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Surveillance craft and or fishing boats.  A third point of interest is that, unlike previous incidents, the January confrontations occurred out of sight of the contested islands known to the People’s Republic of China as the Diaoyu and to the Japanese as the Senkaku, which have been the focus of a dispute that began after a 1968 United Nations survey indicated the likelihood of oil and gas deposits in the area.

According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the latest round of tensions dates from December 2008, when Chinese government vessels intruded into Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku islands contributed to public support for a plan to purchase the islands by then-Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintarō. In this narrative, the Japanese government, “in an effort to avoid any negative impact on the bilateral relations by such a move,” purchased three of the five islands.[1]

In another version, the current round of tensions began in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) vessels attempting to expel it from what Tokyo contends are Japanese waters.  The arrest of the captain, whom the Beijing government said had every right to fish in the area since it belonged to China, brought a fresh round of tensions.  In the face of anti-Japanese protests and embargoes that were hurting its economy, the captain was released.  Beijing then asserted its right to patrol the contested waters, and has been doing so with regularity.  The incorporation of these islands into China would bring the PRC’s territorial waters uncomfortably close to the coast of Japan. Additionally, the islands, currently uninhabited, could be useful for monitoring military installations and tracking submarine movements.

Regardless of the baseline chosen for escalation, greater level of Chinese ships and planes in what Japan considers its waters and airspace in undeniable.  According to U.S. government statistics,  there were two violations of Japan’s territorial waters in 2008, none in 2009, one in 2010, 2 in 2011, and 23 in 2012.  The Japanese Air Self Defense Forces (ASDF) scrambled missions against Chinese incursions into its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) 31 times in fiscal year 2008, 38 in FY 2009, 96 in FY 2010, 156 in FY 2011, and 160 from April to December of 2012.[2]

A common theme in Chinese military and international relations journals is the need to break out of a series of island chains in which they perceive the country as encircled by the United States and its allies.   According to one, after taking control of Taiwan and in tandem with the Chinese coast, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will have configured a T-shaped battlefield from which to break out into the open ocean.[3]  Also crucial to this break-out strategy are the straits of Osumi and Miyako.  Osumi lies between the southern tip of Kagoshima Prefecture on Japan’s southernmost main island, Kyushu, and Tanegashima Island, which is also administered by Kagoshima Prefecture. Advertised in travel literature as the gateway to Japan, the epithet has less enticing connotations in the military context. The Miyako Strait is located between Miyako Island and Okinawa.  Chinese naval vessels have transited these more frequently since 2010, as well as through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.  In essence, the Chinese navy (PLAN) has moved out beyond the first island chain into the Philippine Sea.  Not merely showing the flag or asserting its right to be in the area, these ships have conducted manoeuvres that are clearly aimed against countering a U.S. fleet.

According to fleet intelligence of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), PLAN is focused on training for war at sea rather than, as sometimes claimed, defense of the sea lanes: it seeks to acquire the capability to sink an enemy’s fleet. Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels, unlike the coast guards of other countries, are focused solely on harassment of other countries’ ships in support of Beijing’s claims to jurisdiction over an expanding arc encompassing the entire area of China’s contested 9-dotted line.  Search and rescue, apprehension of criminals, and other duties normally carried out by coast guards are assigned to other PRC agencies.[4]  A recent Indian experience reinforces PACOM fleet intelligence’s point.  In mid-2012, after four ships of the Indian Navy departed the Philippines for South Korea, a PLA naval vessel radioed “Welcome to the South China Sea,” and escorted the ships through the area. Sources in New Delhi interpreted the incident as clear evidence that Beijing regards the area as its to administer.[5]

These provocative actions, each one relatively small, seem designed to evoke a response that would provide Beijing with a rationalization to further its claims that the East China and South China seas. The target state is confronted with a dilemma. To respond risks escalating tensions to a degree that would justify the other side escalating still further, perhaps ending in violent confrontation over what seems a minor matter.  On the other hand, small provocations if not responded to are likely to encourage future provocations that may result in the aggressor state incorporating the contested area through gradual osmosis.

Both cooperation and confidence-building measures have been suggested as a way out of this dilemma.  Both have been tried, with disappointing results thus far. With regard to the former, efforts at resolution of competing maritime claims on the delineation of the East China Sea have been inconclusive. The two sides held eleven rounds of negotiations between October 2004 and mid-2008. In June 2008, an agreement in principle was reached on working together to develop one of the four gas fields in the East China Sea. While international media portrayed the agreement as a significant breakthrough and there was much talk of turning the disputed area into “a sea of peace and friendship,”[6] the reality was quite different. Despite reassurances by leaders of both sides that they had not surrendered their respective nations’ sovereign rights over the area, citizens were skeptical. Anger was particularly noticeable on the Chinese side. Talks continued for several months thereafter, with no resolution.

As for confidence-building measures, a senior Japanese Diet member recently suggested that a military hotline be set up between the two nations so that provocations could be more quickly responded to.[7]  While a good idea in theory, it may not work out well in practice, as then-president George W. Bush discovered when he attempted to call Chinese President Jiang Zemin after a 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and an American reconnaissance plane: no one answered.  Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later commented that “it seems to be the case that when very, very difficult issues arise, it is sometimes hard to get the Chinese to answer the phone.”[8]

In the past, tensions have been temporarily soothed.  But only temporarily.  Sino-Japanese relations remain fraught with dangerous implications.

June Teufel Dreyer is Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Miami. She is the author of China’s Political System and is currently researching a book on China-Japan relations. 

Notes

[1] ポジション・ペーパー:尖閣諸島をめぐる日中関係-中国による火器管制レーダーの照射を受けて- “Position Paper: Japan-China Relations Surrounding the Situation of the Senkaku Islands,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, February 7, 2013 http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/senkaku/position_paper3_en.html. The government already owned one of the islands; the owner of the fifth, sister to the other two owners and, like them, a Japanese citizen, indicated she did not wish to sell.

[2] The Japanese fiscal year begins in April and ends in March the following year.

[3], “島連與中國海軍向遠揚的發展”  艦 截 武器 (Jiang Yu, “The Island Chain and Far Seas Development of the Chinese Navy,” Naval Weapons, No. 12,pp. 30-31. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010) pp. 53-54, interpret this essay in terms of Mahanian control of the sea.

[4]Captain James Fannel, U.S. Navy, February 1, 2012. Video here. Captain Fennell’s title is Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence and Information Operations , United States Pacific Command.

[5] Jayadeva Ranade, “China Perceives India as a Factor in South China Sea Dispute,” Daily News and Analysis [India], June 25 2012.

[6] (no author), “Profit Over Patriotism,” The Economist, June 21, 2008.

[7] Alexander Martin, “Japan Official Calls for Military Hotline With China,” Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2013.

[8] Comment to Jim Lehrer, April 13, 2001, cited in Shirley A. Kan et al, China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications, U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service RL30946, Washington D.C, October 10, 2001, p. 13.

Anti-Japanese Outbursts and Beijing’s Dilemma amid Territorial Row

by Su-Jeong Kang.

Amid ongoing territorial spats between China and Japan, several anti-Japanese demonstrations have been reported across China (see CPI blog here). The latest demonstrations followed Japan’s recent move to nationalize disputed islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. The group of five small uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but claimed by both countries.

Earlier this month, despite China’s strong objections, the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from private ownership to nationalize them. This unprecedented move started in April when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, planned to buy the islands and build infrastructure as part of his extreme nationalist agenda. Japan’s central government launched a bid to prevent purchase of the islets by Tokyo’s metropolitan government.

Despite its claim that the decision to nationalize the islands was taken to block Ishihara’s provocative plan, strong opposition from the Chinese government and public has remained.

Japan’s move has not only elicited a tough response from the Chinese government but it has also fuelled deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment in China. One day after Japan announced the nationalization of the islands, protesters gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to protest against Japan’s act. The next day, more anti-Japanese rallies were held in several major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The mass protests escalated over the weekend of 15-16 September, reaching a peak on September 18, the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident which had precipitated Japan’s invasion of northeast China.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in demonstrations in over 100 Chinese cities to show their anger towards Japan. Some protesters turned violent, attacking Japanese-owned businesses and smashing Japanese brands of car. The recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China are not only the largest and most widespread, but they have also resulted in the worst vandalism since the two countries normalized ties in 1972.

The Chinese government apparently tolerated the public protests at the beginning. Such a large number of people could not have demonstrated if the government resolutely opposed them. In September 2010, when a serious diplomatic row had been sparked by Japan’s arrest of a Chinese skipper whose fishing boat had collided with Japanese patrol ships off the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Beijing sought to curb popular protests against Japan to avoid escalating tensions. Consequently, anti-Japanese demonstrations that month were small, lightly attended and scattered around only a few Chinese cities, under heavy police presence.

In contrast, large-scale nationwide protests occurred last week with police escorting the marchers. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman commented that the recent widespread anti-Japan protests reflect the Chinese public’s resolve to safeguard sovereignty over the islands, urging the Japanese government to heed the Chinese people’s strong appeals. Beijing had seemed willing to take advantage of the protests to increase its bargaining power in the territorial dispute.

However, after the latest demonstrations turned violent, with acts of vandalism, the public safety authorities deployed armed police before events could spiral out of control or turn against the Chinese government. Tight security remains around the Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses as protests could resume amid growing anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese populace.

Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to increase pressure on Japan by tolerating anti-Japanese popular protests at first, then starting to curb them when they threaten domestic and/or international interests. However, it appears difficult to maintain a balanced approach while playing both side of the issue. Beijing faces a dilemma in dealing with popular nationalism.

Given the growing public outrage over the recent territorial dispute, anti-Japanese protests could easily escalate, damaging social stability and China’s international image. But, by suppressing protest too harshly or appearing too keen to re-engage with Japan, Beijing could suffer a backlash from an angry public. Thus, the current nationalist outburst may significantly limit China’s available options to ease tensions over the territorial row.

Su-Jeong Kang is a PhD candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

The Diaoyu Issue: Managing Nationalism, Continuing Pragmatism

By Zhengxu Wang.

Inside China, as Beijing tries to get things in order for this autumn’s Communist Party congress, a wave of public mobilisation, no matter for what cause, is the last thing it wants. Having only a few months left in office, the incumbent leadership is in no mood to introduce new policy initiatives.

Yet Beijing cannot afford to completely suppress public expression at home. Any efforts to actively contain nationalist sentiment will invite harsh criticism that the government is selling out. Past experience has shown that when it faces a major surge of nationalist opinion, the government is likely to tolerate public protests for a period of time.

To show the public that the government is indeed working to defend national interests, Beijing will make strong and demanding diplomatic statements, while at the same time looking for ways to let public anger gradually fade.

Once that happens, the government will have more room for policy action. Only then will pragmatic negotiations with the Japanese government regarding how to manage the dispute be possible. In fact, Beijing and Tokyo had made significant progress on the Diaoyu Islands until efforts were disrupted by recent events.

Furthermore, Beijing is quickly learning new methods to assert its presence over disputed territories. The establishment of Sansha city has enabled China to turn its claims over waters and features in the South China Sea into an administrative presence.

The reported appearance of Chinese fishery authority vessels in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands last month very likely indicated the beginning of more routine exercises of a similar nature.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is deputy director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. This blog is the second part of a commentary published by the author with South China Morning Post on 24 August, 2012.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is  Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute and Lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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