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China-Japan Conflict Reveals Asia’s Institutional Deficit

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What began with an arrest of a Chinese fisherman in disputed waters has escalated into the most intense  diplomatic dispute between between Japan and China in recent memory.  The incident has provoked severed ties, reciprocating arrests, frozen trade, and unusually bellicose language. 

The rhetoric is nothing short of chilling:  “This matter has already seriously damaged China-Japan relations,” said a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The key to solving this problem is in Japan’s hands.”  Japan hasn’t been quite so conciliatory either.  Even Sec. of State Hillary Clinton reluctantly had to throw a hat into the ring today, stating to Japan’s foreign minister that the islands under dispute are covered by the 1960 Japan-US Security Treaty, suggesting that Chinese aggression could implicate an American military response. 

Perhaps even more illuminating of the geopolitical zeitgeist and waning status of U.S. power in the region, was how little it mattered.  The crisis currently spiraling out of control highlights the potential damages caused by a paucity of coordinating mechanisms among Asian nations – laying bare the shortcomings of regional multilateral institutions and their ability to handle dispute settlement.


Like many of Japan’s most important diplomatic issues, the clash with China is primarily over territory – actually just eight uninhabited rocks in the Pacific,known as the the Senkaku chain by Japan, the Diaoyu islands by China,and the Diaoyutai by Taiwan.  Although there are nautical charts datingback to the 18th century which show the islands belonging to China,and while Japan has a claim that the islands were annexed in 1895 when they tookover Taiwan (and not returned under the 1945 treaties), the most sensible case would be to declare the islands asbelonging to no nation.  It was only in the 1970s when all the countries remembered theseislands, as there are speculations of valuable oil and mineral depositsin the seabed.

But if we have learned anything from theFalklands War and sundry other skirmishes, nothing stirs up nationalism like a couple of meaninglessrocks in the middle of an ocean. 

The government-loyal media in both countries have been playing up the politics with a good dose of chest-thumping.  One Chinese newspaper carried the headline “TORTURE, ANGER OVERSHADOW FAMILY REUNION FESTIVAL FOR RELATIVES OF DETAINED CHINESE FISHERMAN,” quoting the wife as saying:  “My husband’s old grandmotherhad been able to walk two weeks ago, but suddenly passed away afterhearing that her grandson had been detained by the Japanese whilecatching fish.

As the heightened emotions create a steadily deteriorating situation, many observers are reminded of the last incidents of widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to occur in China back in 2005, sparked by the controversial school textbook issue and a plethora of other long-standing historical issues and many legitimate grievances.  Many observers have noted that the PRC’s official stance toward anti-Japanese demonstrations has been permissive and encouraging, allowing citizens to blow off steam and conveniently build up nationalist support for the party.  Like with Russia, deteriorating foreign relations may often signal a moment of domestic weakness or vulnerability.


Now, five years later and with an arrested fisherman in the mix, China finds itself with an entirely different self-perception of power and influence, contrasted with the steady weakening of pax americana.  As such, we are dealing with much more than a diplomatic tiff, because neither side looks like it is interested in backing down, and, in fact, may not be able to do so without some sort of rule-based structure to make a political solution possible.

Japan’s importance as a regional counterweight to China is being tested by this confrontation, and diverse countries such Vietnam and Thailand are going to be watching how this dispute is handled very closely.  More importantly, this conflict shows the high costs of uncertainty created by Asia’s lack of internal coordinated regimes.  Latin America has solved difficult problems with the OAS, Europe has relied upon the EU, and even the African Union has successfully solved some disputes.  In contrast, ASEAN appears to be all show – an occasional summit to collect business cards and eat good food. 

Though many lampooned his idea at first, in 2008 Australia’s Kevin Rudd hit upon an important idea, proposing the creation of an “Asian-Pacific Union” similar to the European Union, with a variety of political and economic accords, and, most importantly, dispute resolution mechanisms.  It may have seemed like an impossibly ambitious proposal, but one whose value is increasingly clear to all nations involved – especially when a dispute affecting regional security comes up.

Asian nations get a lot of enthusiastic press for the surging economic growth and robust predictions that the next century belongs to them.  However these economies have developed at a much faster rate than many of the political systems, and the idea that this trade growth can continue without a rule-based multilateral system to create a framework of expectations is illogical – the power politics of the 19th century are an ill-suited companion to the region’s famous dynamicism.

As powerful as China has become, and as fast as so many of her neighbors are growing, they still need and can benefit from a reinforced, legitimate, and functioning multilateral regional institution.  In the meantime, let’s hope that the more reasonable voices prevail in Tokyo and Beijing, before the scourge of nationalism can cause a problem that cannot be reversed.

Photo credit: Anti-Japan protesters burn a rising sun flag of former Imperial Japanese military, during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010. (AP Photo)