China and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute

  • Published

China and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute: Escalation and De-escalation by Balazs Szanto. Routledge, 2018, 160 pp.

In the evolving geopolitical discourse, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea depict one of the most prominent territorial disputes between China and Japan. Balazs Szanto through the book China and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute: Escalation and De-escalation examines the approaches of three key stakeholders—China, Japan, and the US—on how each defines a territorial dispute and the policy choices facing the involved parties. This work critically assesses the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute through the perspective of China and Japan while emphasizing on the presence of the United States in these extra-regional territorial conflicts as a security guarantor more concerned with the protection of norms and the values that underpin the US-led security system.

The book is divided into six chapters, which follow three broad structures. Firstly, the introduction and background of the Senkaku/Diayou Islands dispute. Second, the book illustrates the factors contributing to the competitive dynamic between China and Japan, which motivates them to contest the disputed islands. The third highlights various dispute resolution mechanisms available for China and Japan in order to approach the contestations in a rational manner.

In his book, Szanto explains that China and Japan attach economic, political and strategic significance to the islands. The economic being China’s increasing energy demands for oil and natural gas. Therefore, increasing domestic supply took priority and with the rich gas fields of Chunxiao in the East China Sea, Beijing’s eagerness to explore the resources in the region picked up. Similarly, Japan already facing opposition to restarting their nuclear plants after the devastating 2011 earthquake was found leaning towards securing other forms of domestic energy supply to ensure energy independence.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have a direct political significance for both Beijing and Tokyo. It is important for Chinese patriotism to keep the dispute attached to sovereignty. Similarly, it is attached to Japan’s identity of regional leadership and Abe’s security reforms as well as the credibility of the US as a regional security guarantor.

Szanto emphasises that China’s strategic interests are more directly attached to the islands than for Japan and the US. With an export-oriented policy focus shifted towards the ports and manufacturing hubs in the coastal areas. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands became an important component in pushing China’s defensive lines further out and control the waters surrounding their coasts. For Japan and the US, the author views that it is only important for them that no foreign forces occupy and use the islands as a staging area for attack.

The author provides a detailed overview of the nonmilitary and military avenues available as foreign policy options for China to find a resolution over the disputed islands. The author questions the non-military resolution options as he assesses that China’s legal case for sovereignty over the islands was weak as according to the customary international law if a state ceases to exercise control over a territory it can be claimed by another. In this case, Japan does not have a dispute that China might have discovered the islands but argue that by the nineteenth century it had not exercised sufficient sovereign control over them.

Chapter 4 introduces us to the rational choices available for China in the context of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, that is, integrate into the existing regional order or reshape the status quo. The author advises that de jure sovereignty would be the best possible outcome for China as the conclusion of the dispute. They would be free to establish EEZ and their rights would be protected under international norms.

The author suggests that China could just bide its time through delaying. However, the author warns that delaying may not be the ultimate feasible approach as it may weaken China’s position. Economic slowdown, weakening of CCP legitimacy, and natural disasters or conflicts in ethnically restive provinces can all negatively impact China’s power in case of delaying. The author suggests that China is slowly tiring from Deng Xiaoping’s maxim about biding time.

In chapter 5, the author examines whether delaying is a sustainable process as contrary to popular belief contemporary China is a deeply troubled state facing significant social, economic and environmental issues that threaten the cohesion of the PRC. That even China’s middle class is increasingly regarding its political rights as unfavourable. China’s status as a low-cost manufacturing hub is threatened as labour costs are rising. Growing housing and construction bubble creating massive ghost towns across China. However, without official and authentic statistics available on the economic indicators and the media being tightly controlled in China on various social and political issues it is difficult to ascertain the threat to cohesion in the PRC. The author also criticises the security policy traditionally followed by America to preserve the status quo as it is under a cloud with the unpredictable nature of American foreign policy.

In the concluding chapter the author reiterates that Japan primarily defines the dispute in economic terms, but for China, there are strong political and security interests attached beyond the islands economic value. The author warns that with China’s growing assertiveness the dispute has escalated as a threat to Japanese security. Japan has now openly drifted to a zero-sum view on security and identifies PRC as a threat.

China is least interested in adhering to the norms of the international system. It seeks to reshape the global order that restores the PRC’s prominence. Therefore, there is an absence of optimal resolution options. There is a constant clash between what rational choice considerations suggest and what Beijing’s strategic thinking normally prescribes.

Overall, the book does well to addresses the possibilities of escalation and de-escalation on the East China Sea as per the various foreign policy options (military and non-military). It is a very timely book to understand the evolving geopolitics where China is carving out new territories through means of coercion, direct invasion, and economic investments in the form of Belt and Road initiative (BRI). This book is an excellent read and useful for researchers, strategic experts, and policy makers.

Tunchinmang Langel

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."