By Hongyi Lai.

The flare-up of the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands in the recent months has caught worldwide attention. In early September 2012 the Japanese government announced its intention to purchase the islands. The Chinese government condemned the Japanese purchase of the islands and took other strong reactions. In the wake of the announcement the China-Japan disputes quickly escalated, resulting in surges of nationalism in Japan, nationwide protests in China and even confrontations of Japanese and Chinese governmental ships and even military planes and warships in the East China Sea. The escalation occurred when a leadership succession was taking place in China and when there was an upcoming national election in Japan. Domestic politics was an important factor in the stern responses in the dispute from both sides.

Reportedly, the Japanese government decided to purchase the islands in order to preempt extra-nationalists’ move to purchase the islands. However, this event happened when the Chinese leaders were preparing for the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP), which was scheduled for late 2012 (eventually in mid November) and when President Hu Jintao was about to hand over his top posts to Vice President Xi Jinping.

Xi needs to go through three consecutive processes in order to consolidate his power as the new leader. First, at the 18th Party Congress Hu would pass over his top posts of the CCP to Xi. Next, Xi will take over the top posts of the State (especially the Presidency) from Hu at the annual session of the legislature (i.e., the National People’s Congress) in March 2013. Technically the legislators will vote for or against Xi as the new President. Before the 18th Party Congress and the annual legislative session Xi would probably want to ensure that no event would derail his smooth assumption of these top posts. Furthermore, even in a few months the annual legislative session in March 2013 Xi needs to win respect from officials and the populace in order to consolidate his status as the new leader.

In this context, if Xi adopted a conciliatory line on the Diaoyu Island dispute, he would risk being viewed as too soft by officials and the public and would lose domestic support. This would undermine his efforts to consolidate power. Thus taking a firm stance on the island disputes is a logical choice for Xi. He needs to project an image of a leader who could defend Chinese territorial claims.

Domestic politics was also a factor in the Japanese government’s handling of the island dispute. The decision of the government of the Democratic Socialist Party to purchase the islands probably aimed to deprive the right-wing forces of an issue that the extra nationalists could use to gain votes in the upcoming national elections, off. After winning the election the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) also took a strong stance on the islands dispute. The LDP won the elections partly on the platform of acting tough against China in the dispute. A good number of right-wing members of the party won seats at the Diet. Right after the election the LDP needed to make gestures to honour its campaign promises.

Both giants in East Asia are pulled toward external confrontation by the forces of domestic leadership succession. While the stern moves on both sides result in risky confrontation, they are probably deemed imperative on both sides.

Hongyi Lai is Associate Professor of School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute. His recent books include The Domestic Sources of China’s Foreign Policy

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