Eleven vessels from the East China Sea fleet, the civilian
marine surveillance and fishery administration agencies as well as eight aircraft participated in the naval exercise. China’s maritime venture came almost a week after Japan marked the 60th anniversary of its navy with a major exercise
of forces in the waters south of Tokyo on October 14, 2012. Around 40 ships participated along with 30 naval aircraft. Warships from the United States (U.S.), Singapore and Australia also took part in the exercises, while representatives from over 20 countries, including China, attended as well.
This flexing of muscles is an important sign of the rising tensions between the two countries over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which were triggered in September 2012 by Japan’s decision to nationalize
some of the islands. The Japanese government purchased the islands from their private Japanese owners for nearly $30
million. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, small and uninhabited, had been annexed by the Japanese in 1895, but China has claimed sovereignty over them since the 1970s, arguably soon after important oil and gas reserves were identified around the islands. It is believed that the waters surrounding the islands contain trillions
of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of oil. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands also have rich fishing grounds, which some Chinese fishermen regard as their own traditional fishing areas.
Nevertheless, China has denied accusations that the current tensions with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have to do with the abundant natural resources in the islands’ surroundings. Instead, the Chinese government justified its outrage as stemming from the fact that the islands inherently
belonged to China since ancient times and therefore should not be nationalized by Japan. According to some scholars, the East China Sea tensions might in fact concern more geostrategic
interests. Both countries might wish to increase their dominance in a region occupied by multiple powerful players, including the U.S., Russia, North Korea and South Korea.
Chinese-Japanese confrontations over the Diaoyu/Senkaku are certainly not new. The most recent spat
between the two countries occurred in the fall of 2010, when the captain of a Chinese fishing boat was arrested after his ship hit a Japanese Coast Guard vessel. In response, China banned exports of rare earth materials to Japan and arrested several Japanese nationals in China. This led to a freeze on Chinese-Japanese relations.
Given this rather tense history surrounding the Islands, why did Japan’s government decide to nationalize the Islands? The Japanese government stressed that, in purchasing the islands, it was in fact striving to circumvent a confrontation with China, by preventing the nationalist governor
of Tokyo from buying them and starting to develop them as he wished. It is difficult to determine if the governor’s ownership of the islands would have irked the Chinese government more than having the Japanese government own them. Regardless, Japan's decision brought negative economic consequences for the country, as Chinese consumers immediately came out in protest against the islands' purchase and started boycotting Japanese goods, particularly automobiles. In fact, it is projected that Japanese auto exports to China will decrease by 70
percent during the October-December period. Nevertheless, while tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku might be increasing, it is unlikely that the two countries, both sea powers, would enter direct conflict over the Islands, as it could escalate to unwanted proportions, especially given the presence of other important international actors in the region. It is more likely that the current indirect displays of naval force and economic boycotts will persist until the two governments actively engage in diplomatic negotiations around the issue or some international and regional organizations, in particular ASEAN, intervene by mediating between Japan and China.