China and Japan: Heading for Conflict?

The dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited islands known as the Diaoyus to the Chinese and the Senkakus to the Japanese risks boiling over into conflict. But is all the heat just rhetoric that has been ramped up due to the leadership transition in China and the prospect of elections in Japan? Or is dangerous nationalist sentiment on the rise in both countries? This essay in the Economist frames the problem:

Asia’s inability to deal with the islands raises doubts about how it would cope with a genuine crisis, on the Korean peninsula, say, or across the Strait of Taiwan. China’s growing taste for throwing its weight around feeds deep-seated insecurities about the way it will behave as a dominant power. And the tendency for the slightest tiff to escalate into a full-blown row presents problems for America, which both aims to reassure China that it welcomes its rise, and also uses the threat of military force to guarantee that the Pacific is worthy of the name.

Some of the solutions will take a generation. Asian politicians have to start defanging the nationalist serpents they have nursed; honest textbooks would help a lot. For decades to come, China’s rise will be the main focus of American foreign policy. Barack Obama’s “pivot” towards Asia is a useful start in showing America’s commitment to its allies. But China needs reassuring that, rather than seeking to contain it as Britain did 19th-century Germany, America wants a responsible China to realise its potential as a world power.

Writing on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog, Professor He Yinan of Seton Hall University, calls on leaders of both countries to address the problem of nationalist fervor: “A fundamental solution to the island disputes and other outstanding problems between China and Japan is to confront the monster of xenophobic nationalism that has fed on historical myth and that has been emboldened by the uncertain future of the region. Wise leaders of a rising China and of a Japan wishing for a rebound should not let emotional prejudices eclipse their larger shared interests.”

But where to begin?

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