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Does Beijing’s Hard-Line Stance over the Diaoyu Islands Dispute Target the United States?

[Editor’s Note: Over the years and by agreement, China and Japan have remained silent on the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands issue. When Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the Japanese government would make a bid to buy the islands, the Chinese government took a strong stance on the situation even to the point where it demonstrated a willingness to start a war. A number articles in China’s state-run media see the “black hand” of the United States behind the scenes, “fanning the flames” of discord. The following are excerpts from articles that express China’s view of and response to what it sees as U.S. involvement.]

September 28, 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations. The long-anticipated celebration and festivities, however, were nowhere to be seen. People from both countries took to streets, but for a different reason: to rail against the other side for claiming ownership of some disputed islands known as the Diaoyu [fishing] Islands in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan. Some use the “Pinnacle Islands” as an English-language equivalent.

Over the last several decades, the governments of both China and Japan have kept quiet on the Diaoyu Islands issue. During Deng Xiaoping’s era in the 1970s, China proposed to “Shelve the differences and seek joint development.” Both governments agreed not to let the issue affect their bilateral trade or their diplomatic relations.

There was little tension between China and Japan over the islands’ ownership until April 2012, when Tokyo’s governor and China critic Shintaro Ishira announced plans to purchase the islands and build security outposts. Faced with the prospect of their falling under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo metropolitan government, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that the Japanese government would make its own bid to buy the islands.

As a way of exploiting the situation while distancing itself from it, Beijing gave tacit approval to a group of Chinese nationals from Hong Kong to land on the uninhabited islands on August 15, 2012. At the same time, Beijing prevented a Chinese-based fishing vessel from attempting the same thing. The Japanese coast guard arrested the Hong Kong nationals and detained them at the regional Immigration Bureau in Okinawa before releasing them two days later.

Since then, the tension between the two countries has intensified.

The Chinese regime, in general, quashes mass protests. Only patriotic protests or those against Western “hostile” countries are permitted. The organized demonstrations against Japan (as an old enemy) and the United States (a Western hostile force) are examples of permitted protests. In such cases, Chinese state-run media often play a crucial role in fanning the flames of nationalist sentiment.

On August 16, people all over mainland China took to the streets, demanding the release of the 14 Chinese nationals. China Daily reported that more than 100 citizens in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, joined an anti-Japanese march. They waved banners with slogans such as “Safeguard our territory,” “Boycott Japanese products,” and “Defend the Diaoyu Islands.” Groups of people also gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and the Japanese general consulate in Shanghai. [1]

Then on August 19, 150 Japanese lawmakers and members of right-wing groups entered the waters around the Diaoyu Islands to mourn the soldiers who died in World War II. Ten of them landed on the Diaoyu Islands.

This move triggered strong condemnation from Beijing and more protests in China.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang issued a warning, “The Japanese side should properly handle the current issue and avoid seriously damaging overall Sino-Japanese relations.” [2]

China’s state-run media published a steady stream of belligerent headlines and commentaries.

A Xinhua commentary titled, “Be Prepared for a Sharp Escalation of the Struggle against Japan,” said, “The Chinese government must be prepared for the uncontrollable development of the Diaoyu Islands conflict, including necessary military preparations.” “The Chinese government probably can only follow public opinion and go forward with a real fight against the Japanese to take control of the Diaoyu Islands. The people truly require that the government resolutely take a stand against the government of Japan’s provocative acts. China will move forward on the Diaoyu Islands issue; it cannot go backwards or stand still. People clearly want to see such material progress.” [3]

Huanqiu (Global Times, a division of People’s Daily) published an editorial titled, “In Response to Japan, the PLA holds a maritime drill at sea.” The editorial stated, “Japan should be clear that China’s hatred of Japan is buried deep in Chinese hearts as a result of Japan’s military invasion of more than a century ago during The First Sino-Japanese War (on August 1, 1894). China, which is now on the rise, will never again allow Japan to subject it to military humiliation.” “If a new Sino-Japanese war breaks out, it must be a war that enables the Chinese to wash away more than a century of psychological shame. No war, other than a Sino-Japanese war, could to fulfill that goal.” [4]

With such frantic nationalism, a voice trying to cool down the dispute could hardly find its way into the mainstream media.

Han Xiaoqing, the president of the Japan-China news agency (a division of People’s Daily), voiced her concern in an article which asked the question, “Is it a patriotic act for activists to land on the Diaoyu Islands or does it harm the country?” Han pointed out that China’s most urgent national strategic objective is not to recapture the Diaoyu Islands: “The Hong Kong activists landing on the Diaoyu Islands again pushed the slightly eased Sino-Japanese relations into a fierce confrontational situation.” “The Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland activists landing on the Diaoyu Islands, regardless of their motives, was not a patriotic act, but an act that harmed the country.” [5]

The article caused an uproar on Chinese Internet forums, with the majority of the postings calling it traitorous. The article was originally published on the Huanqiu website but was soon withdrawn.

On September 11, 2012, when Japan announced that it would nationalize the islands, China’s response became even more combative and violent.

The military issued a statement through Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng. In opposition to Japan’s “purchase” of the Diaoyu islands it said, “The Chinese military is closely watching the developments and reserves the right to take corresponding measures.” [6]

On the government level, the Chinese military sent surveillance ships, encouraged civilian fishing boats to fish near the Diaoyu Islands’ waters, and conducted the largest joint military drill in the last 30 years. [7]

The Central Meteorological Observatory included the Diaoyu Islands and the surrounding waters in its weather forecast of domestic cities. [8] At the same time, China Central Television (CCTV) started to air the weather forecast for the Diaoyu Islands following CCTV’s daily news program. [9]

China’s unusually strong reaction caught Japan by surprise.

Over the years, the “Protecting the Fishing (Jiaoyu) Rights” movement has been an almost annual event among a small group of Chinese Nationals. The governments of both China and Japan have been able to keep their citizens calm about the disputed waters and have not let the conflict spiral out of control.

So why did Beijing suddenly become so adamant and even willing to fight a war for this territory?

Regarding the media reports, most have ascribed Beijing’s hard line stance to the crisis theory. The Bo Xilai incident exposed a split among the top leadership. The economy is rapidly slowing down. People’s dissatisfaction with the government is on the rise. Given this situation, a territorial dispute with Japan offered an opportunity for the regime to stir up nationalism and shift people’s attention away from China’s domestic problems.

Few have discussed the U.S. factor in the current Sino-Japanese standoff.

Recently, China has been feeling the pressure resulting from the U.S. return to the Asia Pacific. China is having territorial disputes on multiple fronts, particularly in the South and East China Sea. Beijing has invariably claimed that the U.S. is the “black hand” behind the scenes.

On August 3, 2012, the state media, the International Herald Leader, published a commentary “The U.S. Is Fanning the Flames in the South China Sea,” accusing the U.S. of attempting to sow discord in the region. “We are clear that the U.S. statement on the South China Sea sends two messages: The first is to tell the Philippines and Vietnam that the U.S. is their back-up and that they should not be afraid of confronting China; the second is to tell the ASEAN countries that, on the South China Sea issue, the U.S. has publicly come forward to speak out for them and that these countries should not hesitate; they should join together to face China without any fear or concern about China.” [10]

China even warned the U.S. that it had “better be clear the South China Sea is not the Caribbean.” [11]

When U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton visited China in early September, Beijing’s regime didn’t compromise with Clinton over the South China Sea issue.

On the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands dispute with Japan, Beijing also blames the U.S. as the major culprit, saying U.S. wants to benefit from the conflict.

This was quite evident during U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s tour to Japan and then China in the middle of September. Many believed he would offer to mediate to resolve the conflicts between the two countries, but China published the following statement in Xinhua: “The United States does not have the qualifications to act as a ‘mediator'” because “the United States is part of the cause of the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.” [12]

China even claims that the Diaoyu Islands’ issue is part of a conspiracy that the United States developed.

A Xinhua commentary asked, “What is the U.S. fishing for when it steps into the Diaoyu Islands dispute between China and Japan?” It said, “Behind today’s Diaoyu Islands’ dispute, one is always able to see the shadow of the United States; it is also difficult to circumvent U.S. factors. In fact, to some extent, it can be said that the Americans single-handedly created the Diaoyu Islands’ issue.”

The article stated that the Diaoyu Islands’ issue is “a bomb the U.S. intentionally planted between China and Japan.”

“On the surface, the United States seems to maintain a neutral stance over the Diaoyu Islands’ issue, but, in fact, the Americans are just playing word games. By handing over the right to govern the Diaoyu Islands to Japan, the United States has planted a landmine-a wedge-between China and Japan. By doing that, the United States can hold the Japanese tightly to its side, preventing China and Japan from getting too close. At the same time, the U.S. can maintain its influence in East Asia. In other words, on the Diaoyu Islands’ issue, Americans have played out a long (fishing) line and hook, and what they want to catch is its influence in East Asia and the ability to manipulate Sino-Japanese relations.” [13]

A recent Xinhua article explained why Japan dares to be aggressive in the Diaoyu Islands’ dispute. The article said, “From the perspective of the geo-military strategy, Japan is the most important partner for the United States’ return to Asia. The Diaoyu Islands’ issue is a chess piece in U.S. hands.” The Diaoyu Islands’ “nationalization” event is actually Japan’s cooperation with the U.S.’ strategic plan to return to Asia and is a test of China’s reaction. For some time now, the United States, along with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other countries, has frequently held joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea, with the goal being to strengthen its strategic encirclement of China.

This background suggests that China’s hard stance is actually a response to the U.S.’s strategic plan in Asia, rather than a simple dispute with Japan. [14]

As an article in a Chinese forum asserts, “The United States has repeatedly claimed that the United States and Japan’s security treaty applies to the Diaoyu Islands. China has finally unsheathed its sharp sword, the Second Artillery Corps. (which conducted a military exercise with a full range of missile attacks). In fact, the largest target is the United States! As for Japan, it cannot afford so much of China’s missile attacks!” [15]

At the same time, it gives China an excuse to increase its military investment. Huanqiu (Global Times) reported on a joint declaration written by 10 major generals, titled, “Be prepared to beat Japan!” In the declaration, Luo Yuan said, “The Diaoyu Islands’ dispute involves not only Chinese nationalist sentiment, but also China’s core strategic interests.” Wang Haiyun further elaborated, “The North Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea Fleet should be very well developed. The country’s financial resources should get down to the right business.” [16]

[1], August 17, 2012
[2] Xinhua, August 19, 2012
[3] Xinhua, August 22, 2012
[4] Huanqiu, August 27, 2012 2012-08-27
[5] Huanqiu, August 28, 2012
[6] People’s Daily, September 11, 2012
[7] Xinhua, September 20, 2012
[8] People’s Daily, September 12, 2012
[9] People’s Daily, September 12, 2012
[10] International Herald Leader, August 17, 2012[
[11] Huanqiu, August 6, 2012
[12] Xinhua, September 20, 2012
[13] Xinhua, July 13, 2012
[14] Xinhua, September 30, 2012
[16] Huanqiu, September 13, 2012