The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is going to remain a major issue in China-Japan relations for a while.
By Ankit Panda
April 16, 2014
It’s a shame that relations between Japan and China have deteriorated so sharply in recent years. Perhaps no dispute highlights this deterioration better than the territorial spat over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands — a favorite topic for many of us writing here at The Diplomat. For the moment, high-level diplomacy between China and Japan is effectively non-existent and will likely remain so as long as Shinzo Abe remains in charge in Tokyo. His reputation as an ardent Japanese nationalist is unpalatable to Chinese leaders who perceive him as out to revise Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution and normalize Japan’s military posture to the detriment of Chinese interests in the region.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict, however, in reality was not borne of Abe. The nationalization of the islands was one of the final acts of the Democratic Party of Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda during his last months in office. Noda purchased the islands, upsetting the careful de facto balance of ambiguous sovereignty that China and Japan had enjoyed for years. Sure, an earlier incident in 2010, when a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard caused a major diplomatic row, resulting in a temporary Chinese embargo on rare-earth metal exports to Japan, but the dispute was not a constant source of tension between the two countries. In those days, Chinese and Japanese diplomats were able to make progress on other issues, unencumbered by the territorial dispute.
Noda’s purchase of the islands was well-intentioned. He nationalized the islands to prevent the ultra-nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, then the governor of Tokyo, from purchasing the islands and carrying out Japanese construction projects there to project sovereignty. Noda figured that the purchase would actually preserve the status quo but he was unfortunately wrong. The shift from de facto to de jure sovereignty has led to over 18 months of tension between China and Japan — tension that was aggravated when Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012.