Just a couple of months back, the entire global media fraternity was talking about the next probable war between China and Japan over the issue of a small group of islands in the East China Sea. Just when people thought that the issue was cooling down, last month, a delegation of former US officials submitted a report to Hillary Clinton that the dispute could spin out of control and result into a military confrontation; add to that China’s recently declared intentions to deploy marine surveillance drones to track maritime activity around the cluster of islands from where the conflict originated. The entire issue is certainly far from over, with both the nations in no mood to step back.
There is, of course, nothing new in the conflict between Japan and China. Through centuries, these two Asian neighbours have been brutal to each other – politically, economically and militarily. The Japanese monarchy before World War II was notable for their imperialistic intentions – they invaded China in 1931 to mark the beginning of a violent, 14-year occupation of the land, finally retreating only after the World War II reversals in 1945. However, in the post-World War geopolitics, the foreign policy trajectory between the two nations has swapped its direction. Since the past few decades, Japan has sought to maintain a nice-guy image, while on the other hand, China has wanted to treat Japan slightingly. Japan’s cooperative and accommodative foreign policy acted as a silver bullet for its economy, which saw an unprecedented growth from 1950s till 1980s. That period saw Japan barging into the elite club of developed nations (the only Asian country to accomplish the feat then) and becoming a part of G-7, or the seven most industrialized states in the world. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, considering the fact that this was the same country that had literally been reduced to ruins in the Second World War and also the fact that none of its Asian counterparts could mirror Japan’s subsequent economic achievements. China, like Japan, started a new journey from 1949, when the Mao Tse Tung-led Communist Party of China overran the country and gained control on its governance. But unlike Japan, China, in the first three decades, emphasized largely on a military buildup. Amidst this journey of these two Asian giants, one thing represented permanency – that these two nations won’t walk hand in hand.
Interestingly, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party had promised before the 2009 election that Japan would be more muscular in its foreign policy and had hinted then on a shift from being a US-backed nation to being one with a more Far East integration, including with China. However, that didn’t happen. The recent happenings have in fact worsened the situation. The first, significant barrage came from the Japanese government in early September 2012, when they revealed their intentions to purchase three disputed islands in East China Sea – a move that led to their fragile relationship with China nose-diving in no time. China pledged to thwart Japan’s intentions, and in response, sent three fishery surveillance ships to the territorial waters near Senkaku, the group of islands in contention. In return, Japan adopted an aggressive foreign policy stance and announced that they would take the Chinese bull by the horn – by mid September, Japan had officially bought the islands.