ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Other Side of the Story

China-Japan Island Dispute

In a civilised world both parties to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute would agree to submit their claims to the International Court of Justice, but neither side is willing to consider such a move. There is no more dangerous (leading to irrationality) expression of a concern with reputation than the desire to revenge a humiliation - a desire abundantly shared on both sides of the China-Japan sea.

The current dispute between China and Japan over a few barren islands inhabited by goats – called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese – looks at first sight to be a mere territorial spat. But it has escalated to a very dangerous level in recent months – first words, then actions of police forces, now actions of air forces, and, behind all these, both sides have mobilised all their military, political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural energies to engage in the dispute. It is more fundamental than normal territorial disputes, because national pride and the very identities of the two countries are at stake.

A strong narrative has taken hold in the west and much of east Asia about China’s behaviour, which starts with the proposition that China is the provocateur. Examples include, “China sows new seeds of conflict with neighbours”;1 China has adopted an “increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbours, especially Japan” (Fackler 2012: 1 and 4); “China…has launched a new campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkaku islands… Beijing has sought to challenge Japan’s decades-old control, despite the risk that an accident could spiral out of control” (Chellaney 2012: 8).

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