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Briefly: China Heats Up Dispute with Japan, But Why Now?

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on February 10th, 2007

China and Japan have long disputed sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, about 105 miles northeast of Taiwan’s northern port of Keelung, and known in Chinese as the Diaoyutai islands.

But the issue has been largely moot since Japan formally annexed the islands about two years ago, dispatching coast guard vessels to watch them, and requiring foreign vessels entering Japanese territorial waters there to give prior notification.

On 4 February, however, the Chinese "maritime survey vessel" Dongfanghong ["East is Red"] No. 2 entered the zone without giving the required notification.

Some indication of the seriousness with which Tokyo views this was suggested by the fact that Prime Minister Abe repeatedly demanded an explanation, point blank, from China’s envoy—but got nothing in return.

The question all of this poses is "why now?" The quarrel over the Senkakus has been going on since the middle of the last century. Even when Japan formally annexed and secured the islands, China’s protests were muted and perfunctory,

In the last few months, however, China’s attitude would seem to have been changing. She has come down very hard on the Koreas, for claiming Paektu mountain. Now she is refusing to calm this incident with Japan.

Is Beijing simply feeling stronger, now that she has a fleet of submarines, a variety of nuclear missiles, advanced fighter planes, and anti-satellite capabilities—recently demonstrated? Does she seek now to resume the plucking off of island territories—as she did thirty years ago with the Paracel Islands, taken from Vietnam, as the South was collapsing? Or Mischief Reef, taken from the Philippines?

If so, one may expect that Japan’s response will be rather more robust than Saigon’s, Hanoi’s, or Manila’s.

OR can it be, as one Chinese informant suggests, that internal politics in the People’s Republic are driving this new aggressive foreign policy?

My informant suggests that when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took office, they sincerely intended to end corruption, close the yawning income gaps, deal with the environment, and create the "harmonious" society of which they spoke.

The attempt to do these things, however, convinced them that they were simply impossible. To reform China would require measures beyond the power or the willingness of the communist party to carry out. In effect, nearly every official and communist party member would have to be arrested and imprisoned, as all are corrupt, including perhaps the standing committee of the politburo and the leadership itself.

Reform was therefore abandoned. But people remained angry. How to mollify them? A standard tactic is to stir up nationalistic fervor—although when one stirs up China, one tends to get score settling over local issues, criminal violence, and crude anti-foreignism, rather than any coherent nationalist sentiment. But at least the spears held by the people may be directed outward rather than against local officials and the leadership.

Does this explain the current abrasive foreign policy?

Or must we search even more deeply, for example, into the People’s Liberation Army itself and its factions and ambitions? That will not be easy. Even for China’s leadership, the party’s Army is, as Churchill said of the Soviet Union, a Riddle wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma.

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