Thursday February 27, 2020



August 30, 2012

On August 28, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda wrote a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao in a diplomatic effort to ease escalating tensions between Japan and China over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea. The letter was delivered to Beijing following an incident on Monday in which the car of Japanese Ambassador to Beijing Uichiro Niwa was stopped and its Japanese flag torn off by an unidentified assailant. According to Japanese chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura, the Japanese government hopes the letter from Prime Minister Noda will help to smooth relations with China and encourage the “stable development of Sino-Japanese relations”.

The incident involving the Japanese Ambassador to Beijing earlier this week is one of a number of recent events that have raised tensions over a contested island chain in the East China Sea, called the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese and the Senkaku Islands in Japanese. The uninhabited islands are claimed by both China and Japan but are currently under Japanese control. The waters around the islands are rich fishing grounds, and are also thought to be the location of oil and gas reserves.

Earlier this year, tensions over the contested island chain flared when Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara proposed to purchase several of the islands from private owners to put them under Japanese state control. Despite Chinese opposition, Ishihara’s efforts prompted a bid for the islands by the Japanese national government, and The Japan Times reported this week that discussions are currently underway between the Kurihara family and the Japanese government to buy four of the islands for ¥2 billion. More recently, 14 Chinese activists from Hong Kong were arrested by Japanese authorities after landing on the largest of the disputed islands on August 15 to assert Chinese sovereignty over the archipelago. Last week, a small group of Japanese nationalists responded by landing on the same island and raising the Japanese flag. The action provoked large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations in several Chinese cities, culminating with the recent assault on the Japanese ambassador’s vehicle.

Earlier this spring, Japan and China held talks on maritime issues that in part aimed to prevent maritime disputes from worsening the overall bilateral relationship. However, the recent incidents have put a strain on Sino-Japanese relations. Like the ongoing maritime disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea, the dispute between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea has an economic dimension, related to potential mineral deposits and the location of the islands along important shipping lanes. However, the dispute is further complicated by nationalism and historical tension between China and Japan over Japanese occupation during WWII. The East China Sea maritime dispute has thus captured the attention and emotions of China and Japan’s wider public, putting pressure on leaders who generally seek more stable relations with one another.

Prime Minister Noda’s effort to ease confrontation over the island dispute through diplomatic channels and high-level dialogue demonstrates that the Japanese government values stable relations with China, which remains Japan’s largest trading partner. The Chinese government also showed some willingness to temper public anti-Japanese demonstrations by censoring reports and discussion of the rallies on social media. It is likely that Beijing wants to avoid further tensions or deterioration of bilateral relations ahead of its leadership transition this fall. Although it is not a direct party to the dispute and takes no official stance on the competing claims, the United States too has an interest in seeing tensions ease between Japan and China over the East China Sea; some analysts point out that the United States’ security treaty with Japan could draw it into a potential conflict between Japan and China over the disputed archipelago. As Japanese and Chinese efforts to contain the situation show, the negative effect on bilateral relations of the recent flare-up of a longstanding maritime dispute has demonstrated to both sides the necessity of avoiding further escalation or conflict over the East China Sea.



For more information on recent developments in Sino-Japanese relations and the East China Sea territorial dispute, please see the following news sources:

Asahi Shimbun – “Noda sends letter to Beijing amid tension

Financial Times – “Noda looks to ease China-Japan relations

Japan Times – “Government offering Senkakus owner ¥2 billion for contested isles

New York Times – “Dispute Over Islands Reflects Japanese Fear of China’s Rise

Voice of America – “Chinese Activists Return from Expedition to Disputed Island



For Chinese language commentary on Japanese efforts to ease bilateral tensions over the East China Sea dispute, please see the following news sources:

Caixin (财新网) – “日本首相致信胡锦涛

Xinhua (新华网) – “野田亲笔信被送到北京 寻求缓和关系




Compiled and edited by Amanda Watson.