Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

China has raised the politico-diplomatic ante with Japan over the disputed islands in the East China Sea in a definitive manner through a formal Cabinet-equivalent announcement in Beijing and the follow-up of this assertion at the foreign minister level in New York on Tuesday (September 25).

Territorial disputes with certain key Asian countries is a high-octane issue in Beijing and the manner in which China is asserting its claim with Japan over a total area of 7 sq km spread over eight uninhabited rocky islands has a specific relevance for India. October 20, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the commencement of the brief 1962 Sino-Indian border war that resulted in a complex and contested territorial-cum-border dispute that remains unresolved to-date.

On Tuesday, the State Council in Beijing issued a white paper that proclaimed, "China's will to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity is firm and its resolve to uphold the outcomes of the World Anti-Fascist War will not be shaken by any force." The historical recall refers to the Chinese resistance to the brutal Japanese military invasion and occupation that began in September 1931 and concluded with the apocalyptic end of World War II in August 1945.

The domestic determination exuded in Beijing over the islands — it should be added that the diminutive figure of 7 sq km in the East China Sea also translates into a huge exclusive economic zone over a radius of 200 nautical miles, or 370 km — was conveyed in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday by the Chinese foreign minister to his Japanese counterpart. Tokyo has euphemistically described the prevailing atmosphere as being 'severe'. The current Sino-Japan tension is centred over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands — the names being the Japanese and Chinese variants, respectively. Japan claimed the islands in 1895 when China was the subaltern in the bilateral relationship and, over the last century, the vicissitudes of colonialism and two World Wars have left their bloody, traumatic imprint on both countries. Currently, while Japan has physical possession of the islands, both China and Taiwan have claimed them over the decades with varying intensity — as per their respective recall of the historical record.

The catalyst for the current tension was the decision by the Japanese government to 'buy' the islands from one of its own citizens to preempt overt politicising of the sensitive issue by the more provocative Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara. This has clearly boomeranged and Beijing has taken extreme affront to the purported sale and invoked a Chinese proverb, "It is up to the one who tied the knot to untie it" for Tokyo to reflect on — and make amends/atone.

Delhi is familiar with this Chinese adage apropos the May 1998 nuclear test and the subsequent communication to the White House with its attendant boomerang effect!

Will China and Japan go to war over this dispute? Current consensus is in the negative. Given the trade volume and economic dependency index that is the most dominant feature of the bilateral relationship over the last decade, received wisdom is that while there will be high-visibility posturing, close manoeuvres by ships and a determined attempt to make the other party 'blink' first, the critical tipping point will not be crossed. If it does, all kinds of military escalation will be on the table —including the credibility of the US-Japan military alliance and the larger East Asian security architecture.

(C Uday Bhaskar is a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at This article first appeared in The Economic Times on September 28, 2012.)
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