Oct 22, 2012

Japan - Japan-China territorial dispute: Toward open war?

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Tension between Japan and China has flared up yet again after Japan announced a plan to buy several disputed islands.

Only last year, the two neighbors were embroiled in another diplomatic feud after Japanese authorities arrested and detained a Chinese fishing captain accused of entering the waters of the East China Sea disputed area.

Considering the Chinese people’s emotional reaction and the response of the two governments to the recent problem of sovereignty — questions and concerns abound as to whether the dispute will trigger an open war between Japan and China.

Some countries, including the United States, have predicted the dispute will lead to the worst scenario such as open war or “Asian War” (Kompas, Sept. 16, 2012).

Historically, relations between Japan and China fluctuate. The history of Japanese imperialism in China in the past remains a justification for China to put pressure on Japan.

In addition, trade issues and border conflicts have markedly affected their up and down bilateral ties. Disputes between the two nations over the East China Sea date back to 1964 when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East reported potential oil reserves under the territory’s waters.

Despite the disputes, the two are economically dependent on each other. This interdependence is evident in the trade volume between them, which continues to increase.

China tops Japan’s export markets, and vice versa Japan is the fourth export destination of China, based on JETRO trade data, Japan’s total trade with China increased
by 14.3 percent or US$344.9 million in February 2012. Imports from China soared by 20 percent or $183.4 million while Japan’s exports to China rose by 8.3 percent or $161.5 million.

In recent years, Japanese aid to China has continued to dwindle, the assistance shows “something” behind their bilateral ties. As we know, China is an emerging economy; therefore it no longer deserves foreign aid.

This fact raises two questions: why does the Chinese government keep accepting Japanese foreign aid and why does Japan continue to offer assistance to China, when in fact, the two are rivals in the pursuit of regional leadership and, of course, in the economic sector?

Another interesting phenomenon is the growing number of Chinese workers employed in Japan. Data from 2009 revealed that the number of Chinese migrant workers in Japan stood at 250,000 people or half of the country’s migrant workers population.

This suggests the Japanese economy has a high dependence on Chinese labor. Moreover, the Japanese population is facing the phenomenon of an inverted pyramid with the rising growth of aging society.

The two countries face complicated issues at home. China, as the world’s most populous country, has to tackle the issues of high economic inequality, long-standing “rebellion” in Tibet and Taiwan, and the prospects of peace in Korean Peninsula in which China is expected to play a key role in the conflict settlement.

On the other hand, Japan is facing an economic slowdown, an aging society and the unabated impacts of the tsunami last year.

The problems are exacerbated by political tension resulting from the ruling party DJP’s difficulties in implementing its manifesto that relates to the displacement of the US base in Futenma as part of an effort to review the Japan-US security treaty.

The accumulation of these domestic problems seems to be what is halting Japan and China from waging open war.

Japan and China share a mutual interest in maintaining regional security and stability, particularly their trade routes. Therefore a war between the two nations will do more harm than good.

Realizing its stagnant economy and considering China’s massive economic growth, Japan has no other choice but to “behave well” to keep its influence in the region intact.

The involvement of the two countries in the ASEAN cooperation forum of economy and security (ARF), for example, demonstrates their effort to maintain their “influence” and “leadership” in the political-economic architecture and security in the region.

Therefore, ASEAN as a regional institution, which has a strategic value for both countries, can play the role of mediator to reduce tensions between the two giants. If ASEAN can mediate settlement of conflict between Japan and China, the stability of the East Asia region will last.

Asra Virgianita, Yokohama, Japan

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