TAIPEI — While North Korea has garnered attention as Asia’s top hotspot, experts worry that the real problem is between Beijing and Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands.
Over the past month, rhetoric has soared between new nationalistic leaders in China and Japan as each deploys hardware to the region.
China’s increased ship and air patrols to the islands have prompted an unprecedented response from Japan: Keep out or we will use force to keep you out. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said, “Japan is determined to protect its land, water and air.”
And to help its key ally, America’s top military leaders have told Beijing that if the shooting starts, Washington is treaty- and duty-bound to back Tokyo.
That, in turn, has prompted China to declare the islands a “core interest” in a bid to force Tokyo and Washington to back down, a move that’s unlikely to work.
“I think the potential calculated escalation is high,” said Wallace “Chip” Gregson, former assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs under President Barack Obama. “China seems to feel it is in their interests to keep tensions high, and Japan’s tough response meets with political approval across the country. The potential for miscalculation is always there with so many ships and airplanes confronting each other.
“I think China takes US obligations seriously, and they are working to drive a wedge between the US and Japan. I don’t think they expected a strong response from Japan, but now that national prestige is involved in each country, they are stuck,” Gregson said.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s reaffirmation of US sup-port for Japan came last week after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a Japanese reporter April 26 that the “Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest.”
The “core interest” declaration rattled Tokyo and Washington. The phrase is usually reserved for sensitive Chinese territorial concerns. In March 2010, Chinese officials began declaring the South China Sea as a “core interest” on par with its claims over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
Hua’s statement was deleted from the official transcript issued by China’s Foreign Ministry.
“It is on the tape,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “However, when the transcript was issued, that sentence was deleted. The transcript remains the official account. Obviously, someone believed it should not have been said.”
“China is cautious in using the term ‘core interest,’ ” said Su Xiaohui, strategic studies research fellow, China Institute of International Peace, Beijing. “The reason is that when we define something as a ‘core interest,’ it means that it is not negotiable and China will defend it with all our might.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry source echoed Su’s comments by saying Hua’s comments were a “signal to the world that the Chinese government attaches more importance to this sovereignty issue and is willing to defend its sovereignty. Whatever it takes.”
Su said China’s definition is not important.
“The reality is that it is difficult for China to step back. It is not only a problem between China and Japan. It is related to the US position, the South China Sea issue, etc. If we failed in dealing with the problem appropriately, the spillover effect would be disastrous.”
China has been ramping up tensions near the islands for the past 16 months. The most recent incident occurred April 23 when eight Chinese marine surveillance ships entered the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone off the islands.
Hua’s statement was both “surprising” and “expected,” said Jingdong Yuan, a China security specialist at the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney. There is a possibility China has a new policy regarding territorial disputes.
“China would keep the status quo if one challenges it; otherwise, it will now seek to set a new benchmark or redefine the status quo, as it has been doing with regard to Senkaku,” Jingdong said.
There were relatively few intrusions into the vicinity of the island group before September 2012; now it has become a matter of fact where China is “basically demonstrating its de facto, at the minimum, co-administration while ever more loudly claiming its sovereign rights to these islands,” Jingdong said.
Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, had a different take on the Hua comment. Zhuang said the Diaoyu Islands dispute is different from Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
“Though it touches upon sovereignty and territorial disputes, the importance of this issue in the sense of a core interest is less than the previous ones,” he said. China is willing to discuss the island dispute with Japan, whereas there is no room for negotiation on the “other three.”