So far, Shinzo Abe’s turn to govern Japan has been met with optimism. The cautious reformer has promised change in the stagnant island nation, but one thing that won’t be changing is Japan’s hard-lined stance over the “Senkaku” islands. For the first time aircraft have been scrambled in the confrontation, though no shots have been fired.
The current conflict over the East China sea islands is only a symptom of a long-running rivalry between the two Asian super-powers. Throughout their history both countries have staged invasions into each other’s sovereign homelands. In 663AD, the Japanese tried to interfere with events in Korea but were handily defeated by a combination of Chinese and Korean soldiers. In 1274 and 1281, the Chinese, then controlled by the Mongols, launched two failed attempts to conquer Japan.
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During the 19th and early 20th centuries numerous Western colonial powers began to expand their Asian colonies. China would remain a semi-autonomous state, though in reality the country was essentially divided up among various colonial powers. In the face of Western expansion, China turned inward and stagnated, largely refusing to adopt Western technologies.
The Japanese on the other hand quickly embraced Western technology, after being humiliated by an American naval force. In the early 20th century, Japan quickly built up a modern Navy and Army, which handily defeated the European Russian power in 1904 to 1905, over Manchuria and Korea. The Japanese would quickly move to seize territory and expand its colonial power in China. While the Japanese were certainly aggressive in their expansion, the worse would come during World War II.
The atrocities committed during World War II have gone down as especially infamous. The list of accused war crimes committed by the Japanese against the Chinese during World War II is too long to list in a short article. The total estimated number of Chinese deaths at the hands of Japanese military forces is believed to number as high as six million, and the Japanese often used a “kill all, burn all, loot all” strategy when invading and withdrawing from Chinese territory. The Rape of Nanking stands out as the most infamous single event, when more than a quarter million Chinese were killed over a six week period. For the most part the Japanese government has refused to fully acknowledge or apologize for the acts, which has allowed for tensions to continue to simmer. Many even accuse the Japanese of white-washing school textbooks to deny the full brutality of the events.
Now these long standing tensions are starting to boil over as China assumes its position as a regional super-power. China has laid claims of sovereignty over numerous islands in the East and South China Seas, refusing to acknowledge territorial claims by other countries, such as The Philippines and Japan. The Japanese are the only Asian country viewed as strong and technologically advanced enough to buttress against Chinese expansion through the region.
Recently, a Chinese aircraft was spotted by a Japanese Coast Guard vessel, which promptly called it in. The Japanese then launched an aircraft to investigate, but the Chinese plane had already left the area. This marks the first time that aircraft have been involved in the on-going conflict. Numerous other Chinese boats have been spotted in territorial waters over recent months and the ongoing conflict has sparked protests across China and heightened tensions within Japan.
Neither China, struggling to maintain its breakneck growth, nor Japan, trying to break free of two decades of stagnation, needs another conflict or political snafu. Still with centuries of tensions between the two countries, hostilities will run high over the East China Sea islands, regardless of their overall economic value.