Academic journal article Asian Perspective

"In Your Face": Domestic Politics, Nationalism, and "Face" in the Sino-Japanese Islands Dispute

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

"In Your Face": Domestic Politics, Nationalism, and "Face" in the Sino-Japanese Islands Dispute

Article excerpt

THE SINO-JAPANESE DIAOYU (FOR CHINA)/SENKAKU (FOR JAPAN) Islands dispute is often cast as part of the larger drama between Japan and the United States on one side and China on the other. The argument for this view is that the territorial dispute has emerged more recently because China's growing power capabili- ties have reached a point where it now feels confident enough to press its claims against Japan, and Japan is growing more assertive simultaneously because it sees China as increasingly threatening due to China's growing power. Is this, however, really the best way to view the dispute?

I argue in this article that while China's rising power is cer- tainly an important variable in Sino-Japanese relations, it cannot explain either why the dispute broke out anew in the fall of 2012 or why the Chinese response was so strong. China's reaction truly surprised Tokyo's leaders, who had sought to avoid a showdown with China by preventing nationalist governor Ishihara Shintaro from appropriating the islands for the Tokyo Metropolitan Prefec- ture. China, on the other hand, read Japan's move to nationalize the islands as an in-your-face move, arrogant and aggressive, pur- posely seeking to disrespect China and make Japan's sovereignty over the islands a fait accompli. I borrow from Robert Putnam's notion of two-level games to argue that two levels of face politics are going on in this case. One is between domestic actors in Japan-between the central government and moderates on the one hand and Ishihara and the far right on the other-and in China, between moderates in the government on the one hand and more anti-Japan forces in the government and among the online com- munity on the other. The second level at which face politics is in play is at the bilateral foreign-policy level, between China and Japan more broadly.

Nationalism is the fuel that feeds the fire in both societies, making face politics more combustible and political maneuvers at any level of analysis more difficult. Identities, as Ted Hopf (2012) has so successfully illustrated, play a key role in setting the stage for the respective policy decisions that were made in Tokyo and Beijing. Among the conclusions I reach in my study, perhaps the most important is that a solution to the territorial dispute can only be found when both sides' "face needs" are recognized and met at both levels of analysis.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku Dispute in Sino-Japanese Relations as a "Face Case"

The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are a cluster of eight islands located seventy-six nautical miles (nm) east of Taiwan's Pengjia Islet (also known as Agincourt),1 ninety-two nm north of Japan's Ishi- gaki Island (part of the Ryukyu Island chain), 123 nm northeast of Taiwan proper, 200 nm east of China's mainland, and 200 nm southwest of Japan's Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukyus (see map p. 180). The islands, together accounting for a mere 6.3 square kilometers, are uninhabited, though Japan has placed a per- manent marker on one and patrols them aggressively. After Gov- ernor Ishihara pledged to "purchase" three of them for the city of Tokyo (these three had previously been "owned" by private Japanese individuals), despite protests from China, the Japanese government itself then purchased them, in effect nationalizing them (Associated Press 2012).

The broader dispute in the East China Sea (called the Sea of Japan by the Japanese) between China and Japan entails two sep- arate but related issues: competing sovereignty claims over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and disputes over the different methods for maritime delimitations between China and Japan. Both sides have claims to the islands based on particular methods of delim- iting the boundaries between the states in the neighborhood. The two different delimitation methods-China prefers the continental shelf, Japan prefers the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)-have important implications for their sovereignty claims. Alongside these arguments, each side has a narrative about its claim to the islands based on historical records. …

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