Mounting Sino-Japanese Tension Amid Military Exercise

China bristles as Japan and the United States conduct joint military exercises in East Asia.

Japan and the United States began an eleven-day joint military exercise on Monday in Northeast Asia amid rising tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea and a leadership transition in China occurring in the very near future.

Heightened Sino-Japanese tensions have caused concern in the region over the Senkaku Islands with reports that Chinese surveillance ships have been monitored sailing in the areas around what Japan sees as its territorial waters for seventeen days now, according to the Japanese Coast Guard. As such, there is an increasing risk of some sort of clash occurring from a miscalculation.

The uninhabited Senkaku Islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan which refer to them as the Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai Islands, respectively. In September, the Japanese government nationalized the islands, ostensibly to prevent them from being purchased by the nationalist governor of Tokyo, but China reacted angrily nonetheless to what it viewed as an incursion on its sacred and sovereign territory.

Thus far China has reportedly only deployed nonmilitary vessels to the area, perhaps as a way to show its displeasure over Japan’s actions and also to keep the situation from escalating. With more and more of these incursions at sea, a miscalculation could conceivably occur. If shots are fired and there are casualties, the risk of an armed confrontation between China and Japan would rise exponentially.

The United States have an interest in maintaining peace between the two sides because they also have a treaty obligation to come to Japan’s aid should it be attacked. American officials have stated that the mutual defense treaty applies to the Senkakus because Japan has been in administrative control of the islands. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who visited the region last week along with three other former high-ranking American national-security officials, called for both sides to step back from the brink.

Even if there is word that China and Japan have been quietly holding talks in a central Chinese city, many fear that a successful outcome for negotiations is becoming more difficult. Besides nationalism driving strong domestic opinion in both countries, China is going through a once in a decade leadership transition this month. The new leaders will want to avoid appearing to be giving in to Japanese claims to the Diaoyu Islands.

The expected elevation of Xi Jinping to the Chinese presidency is causing some concern in Asia because, as the son of a revolutionary general who fought alongside Mao Zedong, Xi is believed to have cultivated close relations with the People’s Liberation Army during his rise through the ranks of the Communist Party. The theory goes that he would thus be more supportive of a military that is feeling its oats from its expanding capabilities and China’s growth as a major power.

Others hold out that because of his deep knowledge of the army, a President Xi might be in a better position than Hu Jintao was to be able to limit the military’s influence on foreign policy and thus temper relations with Japan and the rest of China’s neighbors. Hu Jintao, however, is expected to remain chairman of the Central Military Commission until some time next year.

In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government has been sinking lower in domestic approval ratings by the day from economic and other issues. It is becoming increasingly likely that Japan is in danger of getting its seventh premier since 2006 if Noda is forced to call elections soon.

Though the Keen Sword exercises were previously scheduled and occur on a regular basis but are seen in a different light against this background today. China has claimed that the exercises are not conducive to building mutual trust and bristles at what it sees as American meddling in East Asia. As a result of not wanting to antagonize China any further, Japan and the United States decided to cancel the part of the exercise that called for their militaries retaking an island.