The Island Fight Nobody Wants

War isn't likely over the Senkakus, as Chinese and Japanese leaders know it would be costly, but risks of confrontation remain high.

Probably nothing could be more damaging to the economies and general tranquility of China and Japan—and the region—than hostilities between them. Yet, spurred by intense and persistent nationalism, the two nations have been drifting toward at least sporadic confrontation with a mindless determination that sometimes belies rational judgment. The immediate cause: rival claims to own eight rocky isles, largely ignored for centuries but now thought to be surrounded by extensive oil and gas reserves deep beneath the sea.

Fortunately, the chances of intentional war are exceedingly slim. The two countries are headed by intelligent men who know full well what the costs of combat would be. And both sides realize that serious fighting could not possibly settle the ownership issue or create the peaceful international atmosphere the two nations must have for economic growth and domestic stability. In fact, both have made conciliatory gestures; most recently, Tokyo sent the leader of a member party of its ruling coalition for serious but relatively informal talks which produced hints that a summit meeting may ensue. To date, however, a way out of the dilemma is not obvious and the possibility that some accidental gunfire could get out of control remains high.

The uninhabited East China Sea islands in question, called the Diaoyus by China and the Senkakus by Japan, are located some two hundred miles off the Chinese coast north of Taiwan. Japan has claimed ownership since 1895 and, unlike Taiwan and other islands acquired in that year, did not turn them over to the then recognized Nationalist government of China when World War II ended. (Separately, the current Taiwan government also claims them.) To complicate matters and increase the dangers involved, Washington remains officially neutral on the sovereignty question but for the time being considers them territory it is obliged to defend under the U.S.-Japan mutual-security treaty.

Beijing cites assorted historical documents to justify claims dating back six hundred years to the Ming Dynasty. But Japan conducted a methodical ten-year survey that ended in 1895 and concluded no nation had ever asserted ownership, so it took them over. The acquisition was separate from those of Taiwan and other islands gained later that year by the treaty that ended a Japan-China war; those island possessions are the ones surrendered in 1945. Japanese diplomats have even buttressed their case with a 1617 document in which China seems to claim nothing further than twenty-five miles offshore. Even so, the issue remains murky; one highly respected authority, historian Odd Arne Westad of the London School of Economics, has written that “historically China has the stronger claim” but Japan, which has control, sees no reason to surrender or share them. We own the islands, Tokyo insists, so there is nothing to negotiate.

The relatively recent conclusion that vast (but still unproven) energy reserves can be found nearby, plus important fishing rights in adjacent seas, gives tangible worth to these rocky specks long thought to be without much value. But behind the current dispute are conflicting nationalisms in both Japan and China that have been deliberately exaggerated and exploited because the governments involved see political advantages in doing so. By rousing their respective populations against each other, ruling parties in both nations believe it gives extra credibility to their proclaimed right to hold power. But they seem to give far less attention to the dangers of where such jingoism might lead.

Consider China, for example. The ruling Communist Party has been losing popular esteem in recent years—in fact to some degree ever since the 1989 killings near Tiananmen Square—due to rising corruption, nepotism, pollution, income disparities and other causes. Social media have given a computer-savvy public the ability to disseminate information about official misdeeds and eroded the unofficial bargain the party uses to justify its tight grip: ever-rising living standards in return for political passivity. The public demand for greater transparency and accountability has increased enormously, often putting the party on the defensive when egregious cases of official malfeasance arise as they so often do. The new leader, general secretary Xi Jinping, has promised assorted reforms within the party structure—“power should be restricted by a cage of regulations,” in his words—but it’s too soon to know if these will satisfy a disenchanted citizenry.

During the 1970s and 1980s, relations between Japan and China blossomed on all fronts, especially economic. But since then Beijing’s leaders have turned increasingly to nationalism to justify their monopoly, with oft-time enemy Japan a prime target. State television, for example, cranks out an endless array of dramas and documentaries featuring wartime Japanese bestiality, while jingoistic commentators warn that Tokyo once again has imperial designs on China (sometimes with American approval). Chinese mobs have trashed Japanese offices and products; Toyota sales in China plummeted. Military spokesmen even insist the nation must prepare for war, just in case. Xu Qiliang, deputy chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, told People’s Liberation Army soldiers recently that they “must do everything to focus on winning wars” because, as the official PLA Daily noted with regret, “after a long period of peace…some troops have little awareness of war and their exercises are no longer realistic. They have become a show.”