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Inside Story

Japan and China: A clash of empires?

As the Asian giants pursue a war of words over the East China Sea islands, we ask if military conflict is inevitable.

Last Modified: 02 Nov 2013 11:33
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The already strained relations between China and Japan have taken a turn for the worse after Japan's naval drills in the western Pacific where both countries are locked in a dispute over an uninhabited island group.

A year ago, Japan's decision to buy three islands in the East China Sea sparked protests and a boycott of Japanese goods across China. The territorial dispute continues and now the two countries are arguing over a disruption to a military exercise. 

There is a rising nationalism on both sides and also rising national strength in the case of China and the attempt to recover its national strength in case of Japan. But what is more I think is because of America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ ... America now is trying to reposition its worldwide military assets towards Asia. And then also this policy takes the form of closer military ties with China’s neighbours and also strengthening various bases in case of Japan. And of course the South China Sea to China is more than a territorial dispute. It’s a very important conduit for natural resources … it’s China’s life blood … Also, Japan has never really attuned for its war crimes. Japan has never admitted the crimes over the 'comfort women’ [women who were forced into a prostitution corps created by Japan during World War II] issue and it also continues to pay homage to Yasukuni shrines –a housing of various class-A war criminals. Now just imagine if Germany continues to pay homage to a shrine honouring Hitler, what would its neighbours think?

Andrew Leung, an independent China analyst

China's growing power, Japan's imperial legacy and a surge in nationalist sentiments on both sides - all have their part to play in the frayed relations.

The dispute over territory between Asia's most powerful nations is deepening and both sides are talking tougher than ever. 

Both sides sent warplanes into disputed airspace and patrol boats pushed contested boundaries at sea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says his nation is ready to be more assertive towards China. Abe, has warned his troops to "rid yourselves of the notion that just the existence of a defence force could act as a deterrent."

China has warned that any firing on its unmanned drone aircraft "would constitute a serious provocation, an act of war of sorts."

But how far they will back up their rhetoric?

Observers like Simon Shen of the Chinese University of Hong Kong say: "Both sides are indeed very calculated. They would like to catch attention. They would like to be known to the public they are doing the best for their country."

Previous encounters around the islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, have enflamed passions on both sides, playing well to domestic agendas.

Al Jazeera Correspondent Rob McBride says that for an increasingly assertive China, and for the resurgent nationalism of Japan's Shinzo Abe the significance of this dispute is obvious: Military conflict remains unlikely, so both sides are willing to escalate the 'war of words', knowing they can do so with impunity.

As in the past, observers believe economic realities are likely to have a sobering influence.

"The business community from both sides would like to pressure the government to be more rational, and it's quite likely that the government will listen to them," explains Shen.

But China's President Xi Jingping is facing equal pressure from more hawkish members of the Chinese government.

"There are people within the Chinese leadership which are, I would call hard-liners, more adventurous leaders in the military, who are ready to take more risks than in the past," says Professor Jean Pierre Cabestan of the Hong Kong Baptist University.

Coming up against an unyielding Abe, everyone knows the danger of an accidental military confrontation. That would take the dispute into areas nobody wants to go, and whose outcome nobody can foresee.

The US has a number of reasons for wanting to calm things down between Japan and China. President Barack Obama has talked about a pivot towards Asia, a policy aimed at reinvigorating US military and economic influence in the region.

And despite wariness of growing Chinese influence, the US is increasingly economically dependent on the Asian power. On the other side, the US has a commitment to defend Japan against external aggression - an agreement that goes back decades.

"It is a very delicate balancing act for the US but it has been an interesting scenario since Barack Obama became the president. I think within Japan there is somewhat of a feeling perhaps that US isn't paying as much attention to Japan. Certainly Japan isn't feeling the same kind of connection with this administration it felt with others," explains Tina Burrett, a professor of political science at Temple University, Japan Campus. 

"For example when Prime Minster Abe returned to power in December 2012, President Obama asked him to wait for a month before he came to visit him in the US. Also at the G-20 summit in St Petersburg in September this year Prime Minister Abe did not manage to have a one-to-one meeting with the US president even though there was time made in the president's schedule to meet President Xi of China," she says.

So how far will this dispute go this time? Will the spat escalate? And how is the US viewing the recurrent tension between one of its oldest and closest allies and growing rival China?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Hazem Sika is joined by guests: Andrew Leung, an independent China analyst; Gordon Chang, an East Asian political analyst and author of The Coming Collapse of China; and Tina Burrett, a professor of political science at Temple University, Japan Campus.

"China is trying to take territory away from an arc of nations from India in the south to South Korea in the north and that of course is triggering nationalistic reactions among some of the populations involved .... Mao Zedong, who was a very strong leader, basically had a very good relationship with Japan but what we have seen in China especially from Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping we are dealing with weaker leaders and they have been falling back on nationalism to bolster the legitimacy of the Communist Party. It's important to know these islands have been controlled by Japan for decades and decades but China is upsetting the status quo by sending its vessels into Japanese-controlled waters … This is very hostile and aggressive and that's why you are triggering reaction in Japan."

Gordon Chang, an East Asian political analyst and author of The Coming Collapse of China

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