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The escalating territorial conflicts between China and Japan demonstrate that a rising China is a ‘revisionist power’ in opposition to the existing international order.” Argue the statement and Discuss.

Answer

Title: THE ESCALATING TERRITORIAL CONFLICTS BETWEEN CHINA AND JAPAN DEMONSTRATE THAT A RISING CHINA IS A ‘REVISIONIST POWER’ IN OPPOSITION TO THE EXISTING INTERNATIONAL ORDER.” ARGUE THE STATEMENT AND DISCUSS.

 

Contents

Introduction. 2

The Escalating Territorial Conflicts between China and Japan. 3

China’s Actions. 4

Japan’s Responses. 5

The Direction of the Dispute. 7

Evidence of Revisionism and Opposition to the Existing International Order 8

Conclusion. 14

References. 16

 

Introduction

In recent times, territorial conflicts between China and Japan have been escalating in recent times. For example, on the dawn of 11 July 2011, three Chinese Navy Ships crossed into the waters surrounding Sekaku Islands. Japan claims that the Islands fall within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China also claims that the Islands, which it refers to as Diaoyutai, are part of its territory. The Chinese ships were intercepted and led away by Japanese Self Defence Force ships. This is one of the several instances where territorial disputes between the countries have escalated to dangerous levels.

The conflicts come at a time when China is rising to the position of a global power. Japan is the world’s third largest economy, meaning that a conflict in China demonstrates the bipolar nature of Asian politics. The tensions have also raised concerns in the US given that Japan is America’s staunchest ally in the Asia Pacific. The way China handles this conflict portrays it as a revisionist state that is opposed to the existing international order. The impression created is that China is looking for opportunities to achieve hegemony in the Asia Pacific.

The term “revisionism” is normally understood in terms of how a state is satisfied or dissatisfied with the existing international order.[1] A satisfied state is one that readily accepts the existing principles of ordering the international system. A revisionist states tends to be dissatisfied with the existing international order and often seeks to change it. States that pursue revisionism normally seek to undermine the established political order with a view to increase their prestige and power within the system. The aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of changing China’s relations with Japan in the context of escalating conflicts to demonstrate its status as an emerging revisionist power.

The Escalating Territorial Conflicts between China and Japan

Whenever territorial disputes between Japan and China escalate, bitter diplomatic rows commence. These rows bring into perspective the dynamics of relations between these two countries. The way in which they relate is greatly informed by mutual expectations as well as changing power dynamics across the Asia Pacific. An escalation of these conflicts would not serve the interests of either state. In China, there is a high expectation that the country will rise to global dominance peacefully. Moreover, Japan hold’s an important place for China particularly in regards to international politics. Conversely, Japan cannot achieve most of its economic objectives in the absence of peaceful coexistence with China.

Unfortunately, both countries seem to have neglected efforts to promote peaceful coexistence. Today, the relationship between the two countries is bad and it is getting worse. Both sides have contributed to the worsening of the situation. Historically, the two countries have not been the best of political allies. Based on this fact, the two countries have a responsibility to promote mutual understanding with renewed vigour.

The political leadership in both countries has not done enough to resolve conflicts and diffuse tensions; at times, they have only made it worse.[2] At the same time, perceptions of hostility have started emerging at the public level. This raises the danger of acts of reciprocation that could make the worsening crisis more difficult to resolve. Such a situation could have negative effects for both countries. To make matters worse, Japan’s actions are widely interpreted as the position of the US in the Asia Pacific.

China’s Actions

China is confronted with numerous territorial disputes. It has on many occasions disagreed with India over boundaries. It has also been in dispute with Russia over the Sino-Russian border. The country has been putting in place measures to resolve these disputes. On the other hand, it seems to have put on hold disputes involving the South China Sea. However, the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands remains an exception. The same case applies to sovereignty issues being raised by both Japan and China over the vast resources that exist in different parts within the East China Sea. The manner in which China contributes to the resolution of these issues will be an indication of whether it is willing to act as an upholder of the status quo in regional and international politics.

Most Chinese realists argue that a worsening China-Japan relationship would be beneficial to the United States.[3] This is simply because it would create a growing impetus for Japan to pursue greater military and political cooperation with the US. Indeed, many strategists in Washington currently promote the idea of China as a threat to Japan.[4] Such rhetoric is bound to strengthen the existing US-Japanese alliance. Based on this argument, the US would not be interested in a phenomenon of improving Japan-China relations.

The Japan-China crisis threatens peace not just for the two countries but across the region. It also affects prospects of China’s peaceful rise to global dominance. The inability to get along well with Japan is a major indicator of China’s discomfort with the situation of harmonious multi-polarity in Asia. By developing a hegemonic stance, China will be in a better position to take on the United States. The best place to start to prepare for such a possibility is to adopt an assertive stance in respect of sovereignty claims over territorial disputes with Japan.

The territorial disputes are important platforms through which both countries pass political messages. Based on those messages, one can determine whether the countries are in pursuit of revisionism or the status quo. In the case of Japan, alliance with the US is a dead giveaway in regards to its position as a “status quo” nation. As for China, competition with the US on many fronts portrays it as a revisionist power. However, some of its actions such as support for international institutions and the international economic system seem to negate this view. From this perspective, China may be thought of as a “masked revisionist state” that is waiting for an opportune moment to take on the US and act aggressively in its quest to take over the disputed islands.

Japan’s Responses

Japan’s anger over China’s territorial claim over the Senkaku Islands arises from the fact that these claims are weak. Japan has continued to maintain control over these islands since 1972. Moreover, Japan’s claims are supported by international law. As the dispute unfolds, Japan has not shied away from demonstrating that its navy is among the most powerful in the world. It has also been emboldened by support from the United States. Concerns about China’s growing interest in the islands led to Japanese authorities to contemplate buying the islands, which are held by private interests operating under the direct authority of China. Discussions about the possibility of the purchase are the ones that necessitated the move by China to send three ships to the waters surrounding the islands in July 2012.

Although Japan does not maintain any permanent residences on the Senkaku Islands, its move to establish military presence has been interpreted by China as a challenge to its position. On the other hand, Japan continues to attach a lot of importance to these islands because of their strategic importance politically, economically, and security-wise. Japan is aware that should it secure sovereignty over these islands, it would gain immense benefits in terms of military security through an enlarged frontier while confining China into a position of strategic disadvantage.

Moreover, both Japan and China are aware of the lucrative nature of the Islands. Any country that wins the sovereignty battle will end up taking over the ownership of the expansive EEZ surrounding the island. Moreover, that country will be considered the owner of the natural resources that are in the vicinity of these islands. Other than the fisheries industry, focus would be on the potential for oil and gas deposits. So far, no oil reserves have been discovered yet. However, given the nature of the growing demand for energy in both countries, the possibility of hydrocarbon discoveries in the waters surrounding the islands are regarded as crucial factors in the sovereignty debate. The present EEZ surrounding the islands was declared by Japan in June 1996. Since then, numerous diplomatic wrangles pitting the two governments against each other have unfolded. Whenever Japanese citizens have made a daring move by landing on the islands, China has responded by criticizing the move as “illegal occupation”.[5] In return, Japan has tended to maintain that those activities were sanctioned by the government.

In 2000, a Japanese group landed on the Diaoyu Island and established a shrine. This followed by China’s move during the previous year to establish physical presence by sending naval vessels to the disputed area. This was followed promptly by a Chinese activist group, which declared that the islands were part of the Chinese territory. Japanese responded by asserting that the islands were an integral part of its sovereign territory. In 2003, Japanese Coast Guard blocked an attempt by two Chinese vessels to venture into the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In July 2004, Japan also embarked on natural gas exploration in the EEZ surrounding the islands. China continues to dispute Japan’s rights in regards to the exploration of the waters surrounding these islands. This series of claims and counter-claims continue to define the nature of the dispute between these two Asian powers.

The Direction of the Dispute

Today, territorial disputes between China and Japan have escalated to dangerous levels. Demarcation issues coupled with disagreements over maritime boundaries pose a major challenge in efforts by the two countries to arrive at an amicable resolution. However, these factors constitute only half the story; there are far-reaching political factors that inform the positions taken by both countries. For instance, Japan has continued to point out that in international law, it should be the one to take over the territorial rights over the islands as per the provisions of terra nullius.[6] The term “Terra nullius” is used to refer to a territory that belongs to one. This argument is supported in international law because when Japan laid claim to those islands in 1895, they were terra nullius for the simple reason that China did not raise any objections to this claim. Japanese sovereignty was finally proved by the ownership agreement of 1971. However, China’s position is that it had asserted its sovereignty over these disputed territories during the Ming Dynasty between 1968 and 1644. This claim creates the impression that Japan should not have considered the islands Terra nullius in the first place.

Despite the willingness by both countries to resolve the dispute indefinitely, it remains a time bomb. China has already recognized the islands in its laws but has refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is the only international institution that provides realistic prospects of amicable resolution. The decision to refuse the jurisdiction of the ICJ may have been driven by the realization that all the alleged geographical and historical arguments made by the People’s Republic of China are unacceptable under international law.

In diffusing this time bomb, both China and Japan are going to have to manage the existing relationship between them carefully. Japan will have to put into consideration China’s current rise as a socio-economic and military power. On the other hand, China will need to assess how its actions will affect regional and international stability. For instance, the way China settles the dispute with Japan will undoubtedly have an impact on its approach to the resolution of existing South China Sea conflicts.[7] Moreover, it will provide crucial indicators of China’s military power and its ability to use it effectively. At the same time, in view of China’s growing appetite for energy, the resolution will provide insights into potential for and limits of interest-oriented approaches that are likely to guide China’s process of transforming itself into a global power. More importantly, the conflict resolution approach will shed light on whether China is a revisionist state.

Evidence of Revisionism and Opposition to the Existing International Order

The actions that China has taken in its claims over territories that are also being claimed by Japan provide important hints on the emergence of a growing revisionist stance in Beijing. Until recently, Japan and China have managed to keep the territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands and the maritime borders within the East China Sea (ECS) under wraps. However, changes in circumstances have compelled the two countries to confront this issue squarely. The worst-case scenario in this move is a military clash. At the outset, Japan claimed that no territorial issue was plausible in regards to the islands. On the other hand, China argued that it was willing to set aside its sovereignty claims. At the same time, China has been steadfast to emphasize that this does not mean that it is doubtful about its own legal claim as far as the territories are concerned. In this context, the idea of jointly developing the disputed area to exploit its potential for hydrocarbon resources has even been fronted.

Regarding the ECS maritime border dispute, neither side is willing to back down on its preferred approach of delineating the border.[8] The approach that the Japanese government attempted to use involving abstinence from surveying the area for hydrocarbon resources has proven to be untenable because China is too aggressive in its exploration activities. The exploration efforts have even led to the discovery and subsequent extraction of oil near the area where Japan wants the maritime border to be positioned.

During the 21st century, a number of changes in security and political environment of the Asia Pacific have occurred. Top among these changes is growing suspicion about China’s real intentions. At the same time, the Japanese Ministry Of Foreign Affairs has been giving away far too much information relating to its policy on China. On the part of China, the ECS is more important than ever before as far as its quest for new sources of energy is concerned. The country has demonstrated its capability and willingness to deploy its military to protect its energy interests in the ECS.

China’s growing assertiveness is partly attributed to strengthening US-Japanese alliance. In the face of such an alliance, China feels threatened by a superpower. Beijing feels that the quest for additional energy resources in the ECS may prove to be a more arduous task if the US is to join the fray. Part of the reason for China to get worried arises from the position of the US as the most influential country in matters relating to international disputes and conflict resolution. If the US chooses to take sides with Japan, the conflict may be resolved in a manner that puts China in an economically disadvantaged position. In light of such fears, China has a strong incentive to adopt a revisionist approach in all territorial disputes with its neighbours including Japan.

China’s change of stance over many regional and international issues may be traced to the mid-1990s.[9] Incidentally, this is the same time when its economic, political, and military circumstances started changing. For instance, its economy started growing rapidly, its energy demands steadily rose, and the need for a hegemonic position in the region suddenly became a priority. This explains the country’s change of tact in terms of the possibility of using threat of force as a negotiation tool in territorial disputes. This change of tact makes the country seem like a revisionist state that is keen to unsettle the US in its quest for dominance in the region on matters of military capability and economic development.

China’s military power has also increased dramatically. This fact must be put into consideration in the assessment of changes in the way the country seeks dispute resolution. Concerns are being raised regarding the possibility that China may use aggression to resolve territorial disputes. These concerns are not far-fetched considering the fact that throughout history, states have been propelled by rapid internal growth to engage in activities aimed at improving their status as far as the pursuit of foreign interests is concerned. Moreover, through economic developments, powerful countries are able to procure the necessary military capabilities for use in the pursuit of these interests. Based on this argument, China is likely to take advantage of advancements in its military capability to use force or threats of the use of force to push for resolutions of territorial disputes in a manner that favours its foreign interests.

Since 1950, China has undergone numerous changes in regards to the use of force to resolve disputes. Of the 23 territorial disputes the country has had to deal with, only 6 have been resolved using force.[10] In the case of disputes with Vietnam and India, China used violence. In the dispute involving the Soviet Union, the risk of nuclear war was high. In some of the disputes where China expressed its willingness to use force, the outcome involved the seizure of very little land. Nevertheless, on most occasions, the country has preferred seek compromise and to offer concessions instead of engaging in a military confrontation.[11]

China has never fully exploited its military superiority to pursue favourable outcomes in disputes.[12] Similarly, although its military capability has increased dramatically since 1990, no corresponding increase in the use of aggression to manage territorial conflicts has been observed. This phenomenon is one that realist theorists may not have expected given that the country has a long history of victimization by external forces. In light of this history, one would expect the country to be very assertive in the way it seeks resolution of disputes. Other than military superiority, China has continued to enjoy the benefit of highly centralized political institutions, meaning that very few internal constraints would stand in the way of efforts to use force.

Analysis of how China has managed disputes in the past provides important clues regarding the likelihood of a military clash with Japan over the disputed islands. In the present international system,  which comprises of sovereign states, the behaviour of a country in the way it manages territorial disputes may provide clues on whether it is pursuing revisionist or status quo objectives. After all, throughout history, territorial conflicts constitute the most common motivation for states to fight with each other.

China’s dispute over Senkaku islands increases the risk of hostility with the United States. This is because of the close ties that the US maintains with Tokyo. However, to understand the real prospects of a conflict between these global powers, one would have to examine systematically the circumstances under which China has contributed to the escalation of the conflict. Based on this analysis, it is possible to get an indication of whether the country is a revisionist or a status quo power.

States are more likely to use force in disputes over land that is strategically important, has huge economic potential, or is symbolically significant.[13] States whose militaries are stronger than those of their adversaries also tend to resort to violent means of dispute resolution. In contrast, states that operate as democracies are less likely to settle for military intervention as the ideal way of resolving disagreements over territories.[14] Although these research findings shed light on the likely outcomes of territorial disputes, they fail to provide a theoretical basis for the decisions that individual states to use force as a means of achieving favourable ends in disputes. Rather they provide anecdotal evidence of cross-sectional variations in the actions that states are likely to take depending on their specific circumstances. As the case of China shows, this approach is problematic because the behaviour of individual states may change depending on the numerous factors arising in specific conflicts.

Based on preventative war theory, a new dimension may be put into focus: the bargaining power of a state in the dispute.[15] China’s bargaining power may be said to be strong in military terms given that it enjoys military superiority in the region. However, Japan’s alignment with the US complicates the situation because the US may provide military assistance to Japan in case of aggression by Chinese forces.[16] In fact, concerns regarding direct confrontation with the US may be the main reason that prevents China from taking over the ownership of the Senkaku islands through force. On the other hand, Japan has two sources of bargaining power. One of them is its own military strength coupled with a strategic alliance with the US. The second one is its strong case based on international law. These two factors have greatly contributed to the country’s continued hold over territorial rights on the islands.

China may be reluctant to use force in the dispute simply because of the US presence in Japan through military alliances. The hidden intention may be for the country to strength its military capability to the point of surpassing that of the US. Until then it might be foolhardy to attack a combined military force bringing together Japan and the United States. The negative consequences of a possible defeat may outweigh the benefits to be accrued by taking over the territorial rights of the disputed regions within the ECS. For instance, a defeat in a military confrontation over Senkaku islands may lead to a subsequent weakening of its claim over maritime boundaries in the ECS.

The bargaining power may also be viewed in terms of the amount of land being held by a state within the disputed territory. Currently, China has no hold on any part of the Senkaku Islands. This situation, combined with its weak case based on international law, makes its bargaining power very weak. One would expect China to use force whenever Japan moves in to strengthen its position by sending its Coast Guards to the disputed areas. However, China has not yet used force to seize the territory. Nevertheless, in the face of negative changes in its bargaining power in other disputes, the potential for the country to use force in the future should not be overlooked. At present, the idea of a revisionist stance on the part of China is not far-fetched given the growing wave of assertiveness in regards to its territorial disputes within Japan other neighbours in the region.

Conclusion

The present territorial conflicts between China and Japan demonstrate the volatile nature of East Asian regional politics. These conflicts are significant because of the involvement of the US as Japan’s ally and China as America’s fiercest competitor for strategic security interests in the Asia Pacific. Being a competitor, China should not be viewed as a status quo state. Fact that it is yet to use force in its disputes with Japan is not enough reason to dismiss the significance of its military superiority in the region. The American involvement in Japan’s strategic thinking may be a major reason for China’s reluctance to use force in the disputes.

China’s growing assertiveness is the strongest indication yet of its growing aspirations as a revisionist state. The existing international order does not favour its position in regards to some of its territorial disputes particularly those involving contention with Japan over maritime boundaries and sovereignty rights over Senkaku Islands. China may be reluctant to use force in the disputes because a worsening China-Japan relationship would be beneficial to the United States. It would create a growing impetus for Japan to pursue a tighter alliance with the US as a way of enhancing its power projection capabilities in case of a military confrontation with China. Finally, the pursuit of revisionism on the part of China also seems like a plausible argument based on two facts. The first one is the country’s recent growth on economic, military, and political fronts, which puts it in a position of direct competition with the US. The second one is that America supports the status quo in the Asia Pacific as well as the rest of the world. On this basis, China’s assertive actions and political statements regarding its territorial disputes with Japan are an indication that it has become a revisionist state.

 

References

Buzan, Barry. “China in international society: Is ‘peaceful rise’ possible?” Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3, no. 1 (2010): 5-36.

Cheng, Joseph. & Wankun, Zhang. “Patterns and Dynamics of China’s International Strategic Behavior.” Journal of Contemporary China 11, no. 31 (2002): 235-260.

Ding, Sheng. “Analyzing Rising Power from the Perspective of Soft Power: A new look at China’s rise to the status quo power.” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no 64 (2010): 255-272.

Fravel, Taylor. “International Relations Theory and China’s Rise: Assessing China’s Potential for Territorial Expansion.” International Studies Review 12, no. 4 (2010): 505–532.

Fravel, Taylor. “Power Shifts and Escalation Explaining China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes.” International Security 32, no. 3 (2007): 44–83.

Fravel, Taylor. “Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation: Explaining China’s Compromises in Territorial Disputes.” International Security 30, no. 2 (2005): 46-83.

Goh, Evelyn. “The US–China Relationship and Asia-Pacific Security: Negotiating Change.”Asian Security 1, no. 3 (2005): 216-244.

Goldstein, Avery. “Power transitions, institutions, and China’s rise in East Asia: Theoretical expectations and evidence.” Journal of Strategic Studies 30 no. 4, (2007): 639-682.

Grasso, June., Corrin, Jay. & Kort, Michael. Modernization and Revolution in China: From the Opium Wars to the Olympics. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2009. pp. 259-276.

Huiyun, Feng. “Is China a Revisionist Power?’ Chinese Journal of International Politics.” 2 no. 3 (2009): 313-334.

Johnson, Alastair. “Is China a status quo power?” International Security, 27, no. 4 (2003): 5-56.

Shambaugh, David. “China or America: Which is the Revisionist Power?’  Survival: Global Politics and Strategy.” 43, no. 3 (2001): 25-30.

Taylor, Nicholas. “China as a Status Quo or Revisionist Power? Implications for Australia.” Security Challenges 3, no. 1 (2007): 29-45.

End Notes

[1] Shambaugh, David. “China or America: Which is the Revisionist Power?’  Survival: Global Politics and Strategy.” 43, no. 3 (2001): 25-30.

[2] Goldstein, Avery. “Power transitions, institutions, and China’s rise in East Asia: Theoretical expectations and evidence.” Journal of Strategic Studies 30 no. 4, (2007): 639-682.

[3] Johnson, Alastair. “Is China a status quo power?” International Security, 27, no. 4 (2003): 5-56.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Grasso, June., Corrin, Jay. & Kort, Michael. Modernization and Revolution in China: From the Opium Wars to the Olympics. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2009. pp. 259-276.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cheng, Joseph. & Wankun, Zhang. “Patterns and Dynamics of China’s International Strategic Behavior.” Journal of Contemporary China 11, no. 31 (2002): 235-260.

[8] Buzan, Barry. “China in international society: Is ‘peaceful rise’ possible?” Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3, no. 1 (2010): 5-36.

[9] Fravel, Taylor. “International Relations Theory and China’s Rise: Assessing China’s Potential for Territorial Expansion.” International Studies Review 12, no. 4 (2010): 505–532.

[10] Fravel, Taylor. “Power Shifts and Escalation Explaining China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes.” International Security 32, no. 3 (2007): 44–83

[11] Fravel, Taylor. “Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation: Explaining China’s Compromises in Territorial Disputes.” International Security 30, no. 2 (2005): 46-83.

[12] Huiyun, Feng. “Is China a Revisionist Power?’ Chinese Journal of International Politics.” 2 no. 3 (2009): 313-334.

[13] Taylor, Nicholas. “China as a Status Quo or Revisionist Power? Implications for Australia.” Security Challenges 3, no. 1 (2007): 29-45.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ding, Sheng. “Analyzing Rising Power from the Perspective of Soft Power: A new look at China’s rise to the status quo power.” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no 64 (2010): 255-272.

[16] Goh, Evelyn. “The US–China Relationship and Asia-Pacific Security: Negotiating Change.”Asian Security 1, no. 3 (2005): 216-244.

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