Published on YaleGlobal Online Magazine (
Home > Time for China and Japan to Cool It

Time for China and Japan to Cool It

A clash between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would be devastating for the global economy. The islands, historically under contention by China, Japan and Taiwan, have been subject of series of dangerous, escalating exchanges – including activists attempting landings and warships targeting opponent’s helicopters and ships with fire-control radars. “The immediate policy challenge is to minimize risks of accidents and miscalculation in a narrowly circumscribed geographic area,” argue James Przystup and Phillip Saunders of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs in the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The writers offer specific recommendations for de-escalation – including mutual reduction of patrols and establishing a maritime crisis hotline. In the midst of so much historical animosity and modern-day nationalistic fervor, Xi Jinping and Shinzō Abe may have to work out of the public eye to coordinate their timing. – YaleGlobal

Time for China and Japan to Cool It

Patrols crowding around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could trigger accidental war
James J. Przystup, Phillip C. Saunders
YaleGlobal, 27 February 2013
Need for calmer waters: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with President Obama at the White House discussing relations with China (top); Chinese and Japanese vessels eye each other near Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

WASHINGTON: Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s February 22 meeting with President Barack Obama reportedly focused on issues related to North Korea, Japanese-Chinese relations and Japan’s joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The two leaders almost certainly discussed the dangerous confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

The seemingly inconsequential islands have become dynamite in Asia Pacific relations, and dangerous and escalating rhetoric and exchanges could lead to detonation. A path toward de-escalation is needed.

On 19 January, People’s Liberation Army Navy warships in the East China Sea reportedly locked fire-control radars on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter and, on 30 January, did the same to a maritime Self-Defense Force ship, as announced a few days later by Japan’s Minster of Defense Itsunori Onodera.

Fire-control radars provide signals to guide missiles and gunfire to targets, and lock-on is the last step before a decision to shoot. Most military ships and aircraft sound warnings when fire-control radar locks in on them so that operators can take evasive action – or shoot first.

The dispute heated up in August, when Chinese and then Japanese activists briefly landed on the islands and, in September, when the Japanese government purchased three of the five small islands from a private Japanese owner. The move was designed to preempt their planned purchase by the ultranationalist governor of Tokyo – who, the government feared, would aggravate relations with China. But China responded with diplomatic denunciations and cancellation of high-level meetings and celebrations scheduled to mark the 40th anniversary of normalization. It also stepped up deployments of paramilitary ships into waters around the islands, backed by naval forces operating farther away. Beijing appears determined to challenge Japan’s administrative control over the islands.

Beijing appears determined to challenge Japan’s administrative control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The two sides have taken several steps up the escalation ladder, including the release of dueling government reports making the case for each side’s “indisputable” sovereignty as well repeated Chinese infringements of Japanese-administered waters and air space, discussions in Tokyo about firing warning shots against intruding Chinese aircraft and plans to increase Japanese Coast Guard presence in response to the deployment of Chinese ships. Some Chinese scholars and retired army officers even talk about conditions under which China should start a war with Japan over the islands. In both Beijing and Tokyo, new leaders are challenged to protect and advance respective national interests in an increasingly strident environment, fueled by nationalist passions.

Each step and counter step in reaffirming their claims increases risk of an accident or miscalculation leading to conflict. This situation is not in the interest of China, Japan, the United States or the broader Asia-Pacific region. A breakdown in China-Japan relations would inevitably disrupt the supply-chain network that links all of East Asia and deal a serious blow to the regional economy

The debate over ownership of the islands goes back centuries. But contemporary pleadings often reference the 1894-95 Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese war, during which Japan incorporated the islands; the 1945 Potsdam Declaration; negotiations of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty in which the concept of Japan’s “residual sovereignty” over the islands found its way into the lexicon of diplomacy; and finally the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Treaty, which returned US administrative control over the islands to Japan. Analyzing the respective claims and counterclaims advanced by Beijing and Tokyo matters little in terms of ameliorating current tensions. 

The sovereignty dispute cannot be resolved in this heavily charged atmosphere, especially given the complication of Taiwan’s competing claim over the islands. The immediate policy challenge is to minimize risks of accidents and miscalculation in a narrowly circumscribed geographic area.

Assuming both China and Japan share an interest in avoiding conflict, we offer the following prescriptions, some easier to implement than others. All require restraint and mutual accommodation.

Each step and counter-step in reaffirming claims over the islands increases risk of miscalculation and conflict.

Mutual reduction of patrols: Both nationsshould begin by decreasing frequency of patrols, limiting them to white-hulled, non-military ships. Both sides should ultimately commit to restrain landings of activists – as both governments have attempted to do – and refrain from any construction on the islands. On the Chinese side, restraint also entails not sending State Oceanic Administration airplanes into the area. Japan does not have Coast Guard aircraft that can intercept these Chinese planes; its only response is to use military aircraft from Okinawa, as happened in December. Air patrols increase the chance of lives being lost in an accident.

Open talks to implement the 2011 China-Japan agreement to establish a maritime crisis management mechanism: Working out the details will take time, but the fact that both governments recognize the need for such a mechanism could restore calm and rebuild confidence. China has military hotlines with Russia, South Korea and the United States to manage potential escalation risks. Tokyo has repeatedly asked for such hotline in high-level political and diplomatic talks, only to be met with a Chinese response that the time is not appropriate. If not now, when?  

Mutual agreement on a public diplomacy ceasefire: Both Tokyo and Beijing have made their respective positions abundantly clear, with formal government reports outlining their positions as well as press conferences and exchanges of diplomatic talking points. The two sides are now talking past each other, instead addressing their respective domestic audiences and pleading their respective cases to international actors appalled at the prospect of China and Japan risking military conflict over tiny rocks. Repetition only serves to inflame domestic opinion and strengthen the other side’s resolve. A ceasefire in public exchanges could calm tensions and give quiet diplomacy a chance.

There is very little that the US or the international community can do. The Abe-Obama Summit reaffirmed existing US and Japanese policy positions on the Senkakus. The unstated bottom line, given the stakes involved for the world’s three largest economies, is a call for actions that support peaceful management of the region.

Both Xi of China and Abe of Japan may be looking for a way to move beyond exchanges of well-worn talking points.

The key question, of course, is, “Who goes first?” Reaching an accommodation is the province of diplomats working on behalf of strong and committed political leaders. Although Chinese Party Secretary Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe have taken assertive positions, both also appear to understand the larger stakes involved in the bilateral relationship. Both may be looking for a way to move beyond exchanges of well-worn talking points. Initial actions to de-escalate the dispute need not be publicly announced, but must be reciprocated. 

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a new stability, where both sides limit the frequency, size and duration of patrols to reinforce their claims and employ only paramilitary forces in a predictable and non-provocative manner. Each side has its own understanding of the status quo; neither will acknowledge change based on the other’s air and naval patrols.

Once political traction has been reestablished, it may be possible to deal with the islands in a manner that befits their actual insignificance. For now, de-escalation is the better part of valor and of national interest. Farther down the road, creative political solutions may become possible. Imagine a future summit in which Chinese and Japanese political leaders simultaneously divest sovereignty and establish the islands as an International Nature and Wildlife Preserve.


James Przystup is a senior research fellow and Phillip Saunders is director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs in the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

14 March 2013
The international community must understand the root causes of the issues first....ignoring the root causes will NOT ONLY make any policies fail, BUT ALSO take more unnecessary risks.
Honorary Professor Yabuki Jin of the Yokohama University is a well-known Japanese scholar on China. Recently, regarding the Senkaku Islands crisis, Professor Yabuki Jin wrote a new book. The title of this book is "the Core Issues of Senkaku", subtitled "What will Happen to Japan-China Relations”. Experts think this book is more impartial, more thorough exposition of Japan and China, and the stance of the United States on Senkaku Islands / Diaoyu Islands dispute. Here are some key points written by others, maybe over-simplified, from the book:
1. Japan's current position on the Senkaku Islands / Diaoyu Islands issue in several respects is UNTENABLE. The most fundamental point is that JAPAN'S UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE OF THE POTSDAM PROCLAMATION - The notice asked Japan to return all stolen Chinese territories back to China.
2. Potsdam Proclamation covers the following scenarios which INVALIDATED the following acts:
a. the annexation of the islands of the Ryukyu Islands and the Senkaku/Diayu Islands in January, 1895 by the Meijin Government;
b. the ceding of Taiwan and the Penhu Islands in the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed by Qing Government and the Meijin Government several months later in 1895.
These islands in the past are clearly part of Taiwan, and that Taiwan continues to use and occupies the islands are all reasonable requests.
3. The main reason Japanese believes Senkaku Islands / Diaoyu Islands are Japanese territory is because in the 1971 Agreement with the United States, Okinawa was returned to Japan. However, this position is inconsistent with the facts that the U.S. only gave the ADMINISTRATIVE jurisdiction of the island, rather than SOVEREIGNTY.
4. Japan's policy has been based on the ERRONEOUS ASSERTION in the testimony before Congress by Foreign Minister Takeo Fukuda in December 15th, 1971. He said, based on the agreement with the U.S., Okinawa was returned and its sovereignty was restored to Japan. It is not clear, however, whether Fukuda clearly MISUNDERSTOOD this issue, or he DELIBERATELY DECEIVED the Japanese people.
5. Prior to Japan’s implementation of the "nationalization" of the Senkaku Islands / Diaoyu Islands, the position that China's handling of this territorial issue was based on the consensus reached between Kakuei Prime Minister and Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 – to "SET ASIDE" and to POSTPONE TO RESOLVE the territory dispute issue.
6. Yabuki Jin invoked the point of view of his own research, and third-party authoritative figures, that in the official record of the meeting that reached the clear understanding and accepted by both Prime Minister Tanaka of Japan and Premier Zhou of China, the transcripts regarding the two sides agreed to "set aside" and to postpone to resolve [the territorial dispute] were DELETED, and that later on, the Japanese government has FRAUDULENTLY claimed that this issue was NOT discussed at the time.
7. Given the above scenarios, the "nationalization" decision made by Noda government is a serious provocation to fundamentally change the status quo. From China's point of view, such act equals to the aggression and violence to the annexation of Chinese territory. It’s inevitable that China had a strong reaction.
What worries Yabuki Jin the most is that Japan did NOT notice or PAY ATTENTION to many signals from China.
-Harold Gordon , New York
2 March 2013
@Joe from Hong Kong: I do not think it is the responsibility of people like us to pass judgement on this issue and attempt to enforce our views on this situation. It is simple a matter between States, not people. All countries who are currently involved in this situation are trying to avoid any possible conflict. Even if, god forbid, there is conflict between countries over this situation, it would be devestating to all countries involved, including the victor. If the Chinese economy were to be damaged, it would effect all countries in the world, just as it would effect all countries if the US economy were to be damaged severely. The point is that average citizens like us are not qualified to pass judgement. There are many factors why.
1. We do not have all the facts. No one has all the facts, and the only thing we know about this situation is through news reports, gossip, and assumptions based on those news reports and gossip.
2. Situations like these aren't simply just based on Sovereignty. Economics, Environmentalism, Militarization, Trade Relations, FTA's, and many other fields and topics are all connected with this situation.
3. Globalization. The complexity of connections between people, States, countries, economies, and others need to be considered for this situation as well.
Because there are so many factors to consider and consequences, it is not a simple matter.
While Japanese rhetoric is not helping cool tensions, neither is China, or America. Only saying Japan is causing problems is not the best mindset to have when passing judgement in this situation. Voicing your dissatisfaction is fine but an uninformed judgement is worse than making a bad decision on information given.
"A fool in a hurry drinks tea with a fork."
This is a Chinese proverb, if I'm not mistaken. We, as citizens, should not be too hasty when deciding whether who is right or wrong. We, including the countries involved, need to slow down and make informed decisions that does not hurt anyone.
@Mike Wong from Singapore: Japan is a strategic ally for the US. Japan is a strategic regional power, including many other South East Asian countries. And your prediction is correct. There are consequences in conflict but it is not just limited to the US, it also includes all other countries, China suffering the worst of it, excluding North Korea. And referring to your statement on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don't think anyone wants this scenario to happen. And I don't see how the damage to just those two cities will be "multiplied a thousand times". Militarily, these two cities probably won't be strategic targets, most likely Tokyo, Kyoto, and the Hokkaido island will probably be targeted, if war were to erupt, which I highly doubt it won't, just because of nuclear deterrence and economic consequences for all parties.
I wouldn't like to see China, Japan, the US or any country be caught in a war. If the past 96 years have taught us anything is that there are no winners in wars and only losers.
-Leon Cross , United States
1 March 2013
If China were weak like in Mao's time or even up to 1996,Th e US would have said the isles belong to Japan and China can only protest. The problem is China is getting stronger and even though is not a match for US forces,the Us has to give it some respect.
The US pivot is nothing but a thinly disguiesed attempt at containing China and this island dispute is a marker to see how far the Chinese go.For all you you know ,the US is using Japan to be the cat's paw.
The Us maybe able to prevail over China in a war but it will have to contend with unacceptable damage. As for Japan,the destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be multipllied a thousand times.
-Mike Wong , Singapore
28 February 2013
Dear Leon
Are you suggesting that we should keep quiet and just do nothing while Abe himself is making headlines form one provocative statement to another ? On a personal level, if someone else is making all those noises, I tend to ignore them but when Abe, the elected leader of japan ,the prime minister himself makes these statement, dats not helpful and outright stupid if you ask me.
If China president XJP comes out publicly and via overseas newspaper and does the same , can you try to imagine the consequences ?
Best that we voice out dissatisfaction right now before its too late. And we are Not here to advocate for war .
-Joe Hk , Hong Kong
28 February 2013
I think that comments such as James', Eddy's, and Joe's are one reason why conflicts arise. It is best to leave emotions out of negotiations. Negotiations and policy making requires non-emotionally fueled thinking because the inclusion of which can lead to misunderstandings and possibly unneeded conflicts.
@Joe from Hong Kong: I think it is key to understand that Abe is not necessarily "hawkish". While rhetoric can be interpreted as such, there has not been any significant military actions taken by Abe's office. That is not to say that Japan's approach was the best option. It is incumbent of both parties (and other countries who claim sovereignty over the islands as well) to decrease tension and provocations. China not involving its military in the matter would also help de-escalate tensions and allow for a solution to be more easily and quickly reached.
@Eddy from Hong Kong: The atrocities by Japan should not be forgotten nor should the atrocities of China be forgotten either. While it is important to remember to admit to, understand, and prevent such atrocities from occurring again, it is perhaps not best to allow current actions to be fueled by emotions of the past. It is key to understand the past, but not to be trapped by it. While Japan's denial at such atrocities are wrong, it should not have any relevance in terms of the claims of sovereignty of the disputed islands. It is key to identify what is actually relevant towards the current political battle over the sovereignty of the islands.
@James from Singapore: It is perhaps not correct to state that Japan is a liar. Every country, including Japan, China, America, the UK, etc, all have "lied" about many things and covered up many things as well. It is not wise to measure countries by Utopian standards since it is an impossible possibility. While Professor Yabuki claims that these documents were not falsified, there is no citation of his sources. Additionally, if Professor Yabuki's claim is true, the response by the Zhou Enlai was attempt of denial of the dispute or as Professor Yabuki assesses
"The Chinese position was one of “shelving” the matter, not seeking resolution, because 'resolution' required one side to lose."
In the eyes of Tanaka Kakue, this might have been interpreted as an admission because of Zhou Enlai's refusal to discuss, address, and negotiate the sovereignty claims of the islands.
On the interview of Kissenger, there are a few issues that you might want to consider: First, the source you cite is not only from youtube, an unqualified source for this debate, but also the reporting was done by chinese news (CCTV/CNTV). Similarly, if a reporting was done, claiming the opposite by Japanese news, it would also be biased and unqualified as a citation. Second, what Kissinger is actually addressing is the position of the US in this dispute and not talking about treaties between China and Japan. This was addressed by the Chinese news cast, therefore bias.
On the Gulf Daily News article you posted: This is perhaps not the one of the more qualified sources to use. Additionally, context is everything:
"In 1971, the US post-war occupation returned the islands to Japan and apparently China did not object. But, according to Meiji era documents unearthed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, in 1885, Japan acknowledged China as the owner."
So apparently even though there are documents that admits that the islands do belong to China, it is a Meiji era document. The government of Japan and China have both changed since 1971 and has no bearing in this case. What one government's policy dictates, does not necessairly mean that the future government will have the same policy. And according to your source, China did not object to Japan's ownership of the islands in 1971, when the documents were from 1885. Additionally, you say that
"It seems pretty clear from the documents that Japan effectively stole the islands as spoils of war in 1895 ("
There is no where in this article that contains the documents. Have you read those documents? If so, please cite those rather then a new article that you claim contains the article.
On the link from This is an extremely bias source. The articles on this website are unconfirmed and the website itself is very bias towards what sources it chooses to present on its website. Additionally the news report on the video's are, once again, from CCTV/CNTV, which are pro-china.
On the Defense Authorisation Act for the Fiscal year of 2013: This document is not a declaration of war on China by the US or Japan. The document has nothing to do with colaborating with Japan. In terms of the dispute over the islands, there are a few points:
1. (3) while the United States takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, the United States
acknowledges the administration of Japan over the Senkaku
What this means is that the US recognizes that Japan currently has "administrative control" which only means that Japan currently controls it. This is found at "H. R. 4310—409"
2. (4) the unilateral action of a third party will not affect
the United States’ acknowledgment of the administration of
Japan over the Senkaku Islands;
This means that the US will not change its stance about Japan's administrative control over the islands unless Japan releases its administrative control or the US decides to not recognize the administrative control by Japan. This is also found at "H. R. 4310—409"
3. (7) the United States reaffirms its commitment to the
Government of Japan under Article V of the Treaty of Mutual
Cooperation and Security that ‘‘[e]ach Party recognizes that
an armed attack against either Party in the territories under
the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own
peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the
common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions
and processes’’.
This portion is simply re-stating that if either Japan was attacked or the US attacked by another country in the areas under Japanese administrative control, the US and Japan would mutually support each other. Basically, you run-of-the-mill "I'll cover you if you cover me". This is also in "H. R. 4310—409"
as provided in subsection (c), none of the funds authorized to
be appropriated under this Act, and none of the amounts provided
by the Government of Japan for construction activities on land
under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense, may be obligated to implement the realignment of Marine Corps forces from
Okinawa to Guam or Hawaii until each of the following occurs:
(1) The Commander of the United States Pacific Command
provides to the congressional defense committees an assessment
of the strategic and logistical resources needed to ensure the
distributed lay-down of members of the Marine Corps in the
United States Pacific Command Area of Responsibility meets
the contingency operations plans.
(2) The Secretary of Defense submits to the congressional
defense committees master plans for the construction of facilities and infrastructure to execute the Marine Corps distributed
lay-down on Guam and Hawaii, including a detailed description
of costs and the schedule for such construction.
(3) The Secretary of the Navy submits a plan to the congressional defense committees detailing the proposed investments
and schedules required to restore facilities and infrastructure
at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
(4) A plan coordinated by all pertinent Federal agencies
is provided to the congressional defense committees detailing
descriptions of work, costs, and a schedule for completion of
construction, improvements, and repairs to the non-military
utilities, facilities, and infrastructure, if any, on Guam affected
by the realignment of forces.
Basically what this is saying is that, the funds provided by the Defense Authorisation Act and by the Government of Japan for use of construction activities, can be used for realignment of the Marine Corps. This is found on the bottom of "H. R. 4310—523" and the top of "H. R. 4310—524"
5. (1) DISTRIBUTED LAY-DOWN.—The term ‘‘distributed lay-
down’’ refers to the planned distribution of members of the
Marine Corps in Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii, Australia, and possibly elsewhere that is contemplated in support of the joint
statement of the United States–Japan Security Consultative
Committee issued April 26, 2012, in the District of Columbia
(April 27, 2012, in Tokyo).
What this is saying is defining what "distributed lay-down" is, which is basically distribution of the Marine Corps to the areas listed in Guam, Hawaii, Australia, and "possibly elsewhere that is contemplated...". This is found in "H. R. 4310—524 "
This document is not in any way a declaration of war, subtle or otherwise. If this was true, then China would have already attacked Japan for "asserting" its soverignty on the disputed islands.
The document in its entirety can be found here:
You can press "control+F" to search for specific terms in the document such as "China" and "Japan"
You also state that
"Currently, both are busy forming an anti-China military alliance in Asia, coinciding with US' declared pivot to Asia."
Is there any evidence of this? This is just an interpretation of opinion. The reason for the "US' declared pivot to Asia", as you put it, is because the US is concerned about the tensions between China and other countries in Asia and South East Asia. The US is "pivoting" towards Asia because it is insuring its assets there.
Additionally, you did not post the full link of the Forbes article so I will do so on your behalf:
I will also post the links you have posted, to make it more accessible and neat:
China and Japan are both wonderful countries and it is sad to see these two great countries at each other throats.
Also, just for reference, I am half American, half Japanese.
-Leon Cross , United States
28 February 2013
Spot on . As Chinese overseas, we need to do more on publicity and to let the world know the truth. Abe is hawkish and making a lot of unnecessary provocation accusation.
Enough is enough.
-Joe Hk , Hong Kong
28 February 2013
Youtube 'Hirohito and Asia's Stolen Treasure'.
-eddy chua wing tat , Hong Kong
28 February 2013
Japan is a liar and continually provoking China to a war. It had intentionally falsified the record of the dialogue between Prime Minister Tanaka Kakue and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai on September on the 27th and 28th, 1972 (read the article at
Japan had even denied that there was an agreement between the then leaders of China and Japan in 1972, to shelve the dispute over Senkaku/Diaoyu issue for future generations to solve. This denial was refuted by former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who said that at the time of signing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People's Republic of China in 1978, China and Japan had decided to temporarily lay aside the issue of Diaoyu Islands sovereignty (see the video at
According to Meiji era documents unearthed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, in 1885, Japan acknowledged China as the owner. It seems pretty clear from the documents that Japan effectively stole the islands as spoils of war in 1895 (
US and Japan had ignored two WW II treaties, requiring Japan to return Chinese territories, stolen or taken by violence, to China. ( And, with the 2013 Defense Authorisation Act, US and Japan had subtly declared war on China. Currently, both are busy forming an anti-China military alliance in Asia, coinciding with US' declared pivot to Asia. But, is it possible for US and her allies to contain China? It is impossible.
-James Ong , Singapore