China, Japan, and these Fights over Islands



There has been lots of good commentary recently over the China-Japan flap about the fishing captain. (Start here and here.) I tend to agree that China is setting itself back 5 to 10 years with the neighbors, and that this is the somewhat predictable behavior of a ‘rising’ state. Just about everyone expects China’s appetites to grow as its power grows. It is reasonable to expect China to get pushier in its backyard as it grows, just as the US did in Latin America in the late 19th century. I have just a few extra thoughts:

1. All these left over island disputes leave China (and Japan, Korea, Russia, and ASEAN) with lots of friction points. Just last week, the Japanese told the Russians not to visit their disputed islands either. The standard liberal internationalist answer would be to create some joint committee (indeed, boundary demarcation is one of the few things the World Court does well) to iron out the details. But this has never really happened out here, as it has in other places, like South America, where geography also created confusion. (In SA, it was the highest peaks of the Andes that made the lines unclear.) But in Asia, I have the sneaking suspicion that these island/sea disputes never get resolved in part, because domestic elites don’t really care that much; indeed they may like having them around once in awhile for patriotic rallying purposes. They serve an unremarked domestic utility: These disputes are low cost. They can simply be ignored when necessary. A few rocks here or there have no real economic value; according to UNCLOS, if the rocks are uninhabitable without external provision (ie, food and potable water must be transported in), then possession of the islands has no impact on the claims to the surrounding water either. That is why fishermen so frequently seem to spark these flaps; the seas are wide open to everyone. But because these conflicts-in-waiting are always still hanging around, they can be turned on and off at will – whenever domestic leaders need a rally-round-the-flag effect. This is probably especially useful for deeply illegitimate regimes like China or Russia, or in Japan with its endless rotation of governments in search of credibility. In this, I am reminded of the oft-made accusation that Israel’s Arab neighbors don’t really want the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolved, because it is a nice deflector of public unhappiness at home.

2. One unremarked deep cause of these flaps is Japan’s slow erosion. Most of the excitement focuses on rising China. But just as important is the steady decline of Japan. If Japan were still rising, as it was until the 1990s, the competition here would be quite different – two rising powers side by side (like India and China). But in the western Pacific, China is walking away with the game because both the US and Japan are in decline, and ASEAN remains in its perpetual disorganized dither. This would create space for China, even if it weren’t booming. But it is, hence doubling the power shift. In fact, this is the weakest Japan has been vis China since the Opium War upended China-Japan relations 170 years ago. This is the most important Asian balance of power shift since the West arrived in East Asia. We are moving back toward the 18th C (not the 19th), when China was dominant in the neighborhood.

3. The Chinese leadership is increasingly boxed in by nationalized opinion. 20 years of patriotic reeducation on the national humiliation has created an unhappy nationalistic youth in China with prestige grudges against Japan and the US. As China gets wealthier and more connected, it will become harder and harder for the CCP to avoid dealing with this, and these island fights are a useful outlet, per point 1 above.

4. China will have a harder time carving out a backyard than the US did. Latin America has been weak for centuries and the rest of the world was far way, so there was an easy vacuum for the US to fill. In Asia, China is next to India, Japan, South Korea, and, a bit further out, Australia. All of them have a much better capacity to push back than Mexico, Argentina, or Brazil ever did. (PS: The Economist says the Monroe Doctrine is dead now. I don’t buy it.)

9 thoughts on “China, Japan, and these Fights over Islands

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