The Senkaku Boomerang
China's leaders may have thought that by frequently dispatching ships and planes into Japan's territory around the tiny Senkaku Islands they would cause Tokyo to bow to their demands. Instead, their strategy of harassment and intimidation has accomplished the opposite—and then some.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rallied Japanese to defend their territorial sovereignty, and he may succeed in reinterpreting the Japanese constitution to allow Japan to come to the military aid of its allies. The threat to the Senakakus has strengthened Tokyo's alliance with Washington, with the two countries agreeing earlier this month to bolster their military ties, including the deployment of U.S. P-8 maritime surveillance planes in Japan and stationing a second missile-defense radar.
Japan has also strengthened its ties with Southeast Asia. Smaller regional powers have come to see Tokyo as a potential defender, along with the U.S., of the peace against a hegemonic Middle Kingdom.
In an interview with the Journal last week, Mr. Abe, fresh from a successful tour of the region, signalled his willingness to take up a greater leadership role and issued a warning to Beijing. "There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law. But if China opts to take that path, then it won't be able to emerge peacefully," he said.
Mr. Abe's remarks were followed by more clear-eyed talk from Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who on Tuesday accused China of endangering the peace by sending its coast guard vessels into the Senkaku waters more than once a week: "I believe the intrusions by China in the territorial waters around the Senkaku islands fall in the 'grey zone' (between) peacetime and an emergency situation."
Japan has begun conducting amphibious exercises that simulate the kind of operations that might be needed to defend or retake the Senkakus. It is expected to create a new unit tasked with such missions.
The danger now is that the chances of accident, miscalculation or even a shooting incident grow with each Chinese foray near the islands. That's what makes Japan's demonstration of political resolve and military capability all the more important, but Japan cannot be left on its own. The U.S. took the Senkakus from Japan after World War II and returned them in the early 1970s, effectively settling the question of their sovereignty for American purposes. The more explicit the Obama Administration is that the Senkakus are Japanese, the likelier Beijing is to back down.
In the long term, there may be a possibility for Japan and China to resolve their differences by freezing the status quo and deferring resolution of the dispute to future generations. That was the view Deng Xiaoping had of the matter, and current leader Xijinping would do well to follow in those footsteps. The alternative is to further alienate China from its neighbors, and further call into doubt the promise—and the hope—that China's rise will be peaceful.