Reconciliation at the crossroads: Hindering factors Sino-Japanese relations
January-March 2018
By: Lanny Surya Alfiani and Anak Agung Banyu Perwita

The territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands reached its peak in 2012, when Japan purchased the islands from a private owner. For China, this was seen as Japan “solidifying control.” It triggered massive protests and an anti-Japanese movement in China. The unpleasant history of Japanese aggression undoubtedly increased the emotions of Chinese over the territorial dispute. Both Japan and China have their own versions of claiming sovereignty over the islands – based on law but also on history. Japan says it discovered and inhabited the Senkaku Islands beginning in 1895, while China says the Diaoyu Islands were recorded in Chinese literature dating back to the 15th century.

From a classical realism perspective, the clash over territory is an interplay of material forces. There is competition for oil and gas reserves, but the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are also an important trade route. Therefore, the islands have become a core national interest for both claimants. Territory is part of a nation`s sovereignty, and sovereignty means having power and control over its own future. The loss of territory implies the loss of legal control that will affect national policy. Territorial disputes remain a primary source of conflict and violence between nations, and are the main reason nations have gone to war. This is in line with the principle of classical realism, where the behaviors of nations are essentially rational egoism animated by national interests.

Aside from defending territorial integrity, the interest in owning the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a result of greed and power. This is in accordance with classical realism`s belief that the behavior of nations is a reflection of human nature, in which human nature is selfish and will always lust for power and domination. But the competition for the islands is more than that. Not only fueled by heightened nationalism within both China and Japan, the dispute is also triggered by historical ideas and memories. China argues that Japan stole the islands during the First Sino-Japanese War; Japan contends that the islands are inherited territory.

According to Hobbes, states are motivated by competition, diffidence and glory; the islands (Senkaku to Japan and Diaoyu to China) are also seen as a battle of national identity and pride. The legal arguments over the history of ownership show a condition of anarchy in the international political arena, where there is no higher authority to settle the dispute. The self-help nature of nations seen by classical realism is projected in the strong desire to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as a national interest.

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