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Volume 37, Number 2 – The Journal of Japanese Studies
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The influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences opined that conflict over the islands is inevitable. That is indeed a real risk. Both Abe and Xi have ample strategic and domestic political incentives not to signal softness or appear to back down.
Japan's claim is 'specter of imperialism'
Increasing maritime patrols presage further incidents at sea. The arousal of nationalist groups — whether seeking to plant flags on rocky shores or simply waving them in the streets — will make it difficult for leaders to turn the other cheek when incidents occur, leading to real possibilities of escalation. Yet there are some reasons for optimism. Neither government appears to want a war, as armed conflict is unlikely to give either side what it wants.
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For Japan, a win would at best be pyrrhic. Defending a few small islets with uncertain adjoining maritime rights would be little reward for risking a rupture in economic ties and adding fuel to Chinese nationalism and military modernization. In both China and Japan, nationalism is a potent political commodity, but economic performance is a safer and more durable basis for popular support.
Feuding with Japan is a good way to bring frustrated Chinese into the streets but does not fill their empty stomachs. That frame taps into norms of territorial integrity and has served the short-term interests of some politicians, but it offers little hope for a solution. Even armed conflict is unlikely to resolve the question of who owns the islets and the surrounding seabed, where the real treasure of oil and gas deposits are believed to lie.
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Even an unlikely agreement on the sovereignty of the islets themselves would not resolve the crisscrossing lines of competing maritime claims around them. As long as the stalemate endures, no claimant will be able to access energy resources safely. Abe, Xi, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou would be better off framing the issue as part of a broader disagreement over prized resources throughout the East China Sea.