By Kerry Brown.

Here is the quandary. Two major economies on which the world depends for future stability and growth have had a difficult history with each other and tetchy political relations. Add to this that they are both politically and socially cultures that have huge issues with public face and reputation, in which backing down always presents problems. To this, add the fact that they are massive mutual trade partners, and that they have both recently undergone transitions in leadership which presented them each with unique challenges.

Into this febrile mix, add the final element: They have active territorial disputes between each other, the resolution of which they profoundly disagree about.

In view of all of this, it is perhaps surprising how little, rather than how much China and Japan have clashed with each other in the last decade. Until now that is. The escalation of nasty rhetoric towards each other over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the last 12 months and the way this has crept towards actual military conflict has been particularly unnerving. When editorials in Chinese papers start saying that there is little likelihood of a real armed clash, then it is time to start worrying.

We are used to PLA generals making provocative statements. One of the most celebrated was by the firebrand Xiong Guangkai bragging in the late 1990s that Chinese missiles were well placed to fire nuclear warheads at west coast America. General Xiong was widely seen as a vagrant voice. But the statement of a Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff on 5th February that `[China] will be unyielding in defending national sovereignty , territorial integrity and maritime interests – not the slightest harm can come to the core national interests, not one mite of national sovereignty can be lost and not one inch of national territory can be lost…’ was in a cooler, more chilling register.[1] Even more worrying was the fact that it was said on the back of reported remarks by new Party Secretary Xi Jinping appearing in Xinhua that over China’s core interests, and in particular its sovereignty, there will be no backing down.

A worrying narrative starts to appear here. What little we do know about Xi Jinping shows us he is a man who believes through his family connections to the elite leadership of the past that the Communist Party has a specific historic, moral and political destiny to rule, and that he has a personal responsibility to ensure that legacy is not betrayed. We also know that Chinese public opinion, punch drunk on the country’s rising economic power, is coming closer to the moment when it might be forcing its new leaders to show they are more than just all talk. We have a worrying play off between inexperienced, new leaders wanting to show their prowess, and a public who are goading them on. One suspects that in their hearts, the new leaders still have a sneaking fear about their legitimacy because of the opaque way in which they were selected. What better way of gaining more of this than by clouting a country that was historically an enemy.

All of this runs against the fact that the Chinese government’s number one priority remains economic development and that Japan remains a massive ally in this. Geopolitically the two might be at each other’s throats over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Economically, they sink or swim together.

In all of this we downplay the role of public opinion in Japan at our peril. Despite the shrill nationalist shouting and threats in China, the steely determined silence of the Japanese public should give us pause for thought. Divided domestically over their almost perpetually stagnating economy, a war of words with a China that is increasingly stealing their economic and diplomatic thunder may well mobilize and unify people in ways unlike any other.

For two countries that are culturally committed to concepts of face, therefore, the true irony is that it looks more and more like external intervention is going to offer the only serious exit. At a time when the Middle East, north Africa, and Central Asia remain deeply problematic, and the economies of the developed world are still stuttering, and where Syria’s tragic implosion continues, the last thing the world’s powers want is to have to focus their widely overstretched diplomatic energies on keeping the second and third largest economies in the world from smashing into each other over a small group of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.  But that, it seems increasingly likely, is what they will need to do. President Obama may have meant something completely different when he talked of the `pivot’ to Asia a few years back, but now, reelected, he is going to have to take precious time and political capital from all his other battles to bear down on the Japanese and Chinese and find ways of making them calm down.

There are perfectly viable compromise solutions – resource sharing arrangements that put the sovereignty issues on hold till a day, way in the future probably, when it can be resolved (and this means involving the other contesting parties) being one of them.  Urging on China the approach of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s about thorny issues like this might also be worth persisting in – leave them to the next generation to find the solution to, and deal with the issues today pragmatically. US pressure on Japan as a major ally is likely to continue. And for China, though its tougher, an approach that simply stresses how much it stands to lose if things continue to get out of hand, and how much to gain if it starts acting more like a global player looking a bit further than its own backyard.

New Chinese leaders, after all, should now start to have global, not just national or even regional vision. They need to start the journey from being people who place their domestic issues above all others as their key worries and start talking a more deeply globalised language, in which they show they are aware of their new status as a major international power. Rowing about a small group of islands to such an extent they are creeping closer to military conflict is the behavior of old powers in the old world. Chinese leaders need to be treated, and to be made to act, like modern leaders in a global world where this sort of behavior is, put simply, beneath them.

Kerry Brown is Executive Director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and former Head of Chatham House Asia Programme. Follow him on Twitter @Bkerrychina

[1] The Nelson Report, 6th February 2013, Washington DC.


  1. Resource sharing was advocated by the PRC up until a few years ago. But the PRC claim is entirely a post 1971 invention.

    To argue for resource sharing is to reward the PRC for inventing this claim out of whole cloth and then rummaging through its history to find faux support for it. This will only encourage it to make similar,novel claims elsewhere and to expand its current portfolio of claims. Moreover, at this point I don’t see the PRC accepting such a position, because ultimately its position on the senkakus is bound up with its equally bogus claims to taiwan and to okinawa. At the moment I think external pressure is best applied in getting China to accept its current borders, and in building a coalition that can resist when china finally does opt for war.

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