Diaoyu Dispute: Where Will Tensions Lead?

A Foreign Ministry spokesman announced on Wednesday that China would carry out a geographical survey of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, according to Xinhua News. From AFP (via the South China Morning Post):

The mapping exercise was part of China’s efforts to “safeguard its maritime rights and interests”, Xinhua said, without saying when it would take place or making clear whether it would involve activities on land, as opposed to sea-based surveying.

It quoted Zhang Huifeng, an official with China’s National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation, acknowledging that there could be “difficulties”.

“There are some difficulties in landing on some islands to survey, and in surveying and mapping the surrounding sea area of the islands, because some countries infringed and occupied these islands of China,” he said.

Japan scrambled fighter jets to the skies above the territory last week, the second time in less than a month it had done so, after it detected several Chinese military planes in the area. The U.S. sent a top diplomat to Tokyo this week, and on Thursday he urged leaders on both sides to discuss the issue before brinksmanship turns into dangerous conflict

The risks of a dangerous clash between China and Japan are rising, according to The Economist, which explores where tensions over the Diayou Islands may lead:

The risk that the dispute might cause a serious rift with America must haunt some of China’s diplomats. Many of them believe that this would thwart China’s ambition to become a respected global power. So calmer voices may yet prevail. A botched military engagement could inflame nationalist sentiment at home and turn it against the party for its perceived incompetence. For all their rapid acquisition of sophisticated hardware in recent years, the Chinese armed forces lack the combat experience that might give them confidence in their ability to prevail. As for projecting force, the islands lie closer to Japan (as well as to Taiwan, which also claims them) than to the Chinese mainland.

But China’s foreign-policy behaviour has become more unpredictable of late. Many of its officials believe that America has been weakened by the global financial crisis and debilitating wars, even as China has grown stronger. Toughness abroad might also give Mr Xi, a nationalist, some cover for a more risk-taking approach to handling problems at home. In recent weeks there have been a few signs that he might be a bit more open-minded than his predecessors. A recent crisis involving a strike by journalists at a popular and relatively liberal newspaper was resolved without obvious repercussions for the journalists involved. As dense smog this week choked Beijing and several other cities, China’s press has had unusually free rein to complain about air pollution.

The firmness of Mr Xi’s grip on policymaking is hard to divine. It will not be clear for some weeks who, if anyone, will have day-to-day control over foreign policy in the decision-making standing committee of the party’s Politburo, which for the past decade has lacked a dedicated foreign-policy handler. It is also possible that rising tensions with Japan reflect China’s leaders’ distraction by struggles relating to the succession. Lacking clear direction, bureaucracies may be trying to look tough.

Meanwhile, Mr Abe launched a trip to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia on January 16th, his first journey abroad since taking office. Despite the inclusion of Vietnam, his officials talk of “values diplomacy”, an attempt to forge closer ties with democratic allies. Though the mission is ostensibly to foster closer economic ties with a fast-growing region, countering the Chinese threat seems an equally pressing motive. Some Japanese experts believe the trip too provocative. China probably saw it as a bid at diplomatic encirclement.