The Clash of Power and Nationalism: The Sino-Japan Territorial Dispute

Published date01 April 2018
Date01 April 2018
AuthorJihyun Kim
Subject MatterArticles
02_AIA750268_31-56.indd Article
The Clash of Power and
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
Nationalism: The Sino-Japan
5(1) 31–56
2018 SAGE Publications India
Territorial Dispute
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797017750268
Jihyun Kim1
The East Asian security order has been affected by the increasing rivalry between
China and Japan in recent years against the backdrop of the evolving Sino-Japan
balance of power and the renewed nationalism in both countries. These develop-
ments have emerged as powerful wild cards, reinforcing the security dilemma and
undermining the prospect for building a lasting peace between these two major
powers in the region. This research is designed to examine Sino-Japan relations
as well as the overall security order in East Asia. In particular, it looks into how
the politics of nationalism intertwined with the changing regional power dynamics
could affect the East China Sea dispute by creating an environment more
conducive to bilateral tensions rather than mutual trust and cooperation.
East China Sea dispute, the rise of China, nationalism, power transition, Sino-Japan
The relationship between China and Japan has been one of the most influential and
occasionally destabilizing factors that shape the security environment in East Asia.
Whereas China and Japan have maintained ‘negative peace’, these countries are
still in for the long haul to achieve ‘positive peace’ due to the lack of mutual success
in overcoming the sense of past injustices through open and comprehensive
communication.1 More recently, both sides’ renewed nationalism and their increas-
ing geostrategic rivalry, accompanied by changes in the regional status quo, have
become powerful wild cards, reinforcing the security dilemma and undermining
the prospect for building a lasting peace between the two states. Despite their close
1 Assistant Professor, Institute of International Studies, Bradley University, USA.
Corresponding author:
Jihyun Kim, Institute of International Studies, Bradley University, 1501 W Bradley Ave. Peoria,
IL 61625, USA.

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 5(1)
economic relations and deepening social interactions, political and security tensions
between the two have remained due to historical memory of mutual antagonism,
aggravated by the rise of nationalism and further intensified by the shifting
power parity in East Asia. Among the long list of grievances between the two sides,
tensions in the East China Sea surrounding a few, uninhabited small islands and
rocks, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan have emerged as important
elements that could test Sino-Japanese relations with greater regional security
implications. In particular, the East China Sea dispute can be a good indicator that
looks into the effects of nationalism and other related issues of mutual antipathy,
derived from history and against the backdrop of on-going changes in geostrategic
environment caused by China’s rapid rise and Japan’s relative decline. What further
complicates the matter is the fact that Sino-Japan relations, including the territorial
dispute, are not merely a bilateral affair, but also closely related to important inter-
ests of other countries, including the USA, as both China and Japan are intimately
connected to this global superpower. Despite Washington’s claim that it takes no
position on where ultimate sovereignty lies in the East China Sea dispute, it has
been more than a passive player in the affair due to its security commitment to
defending Japan in addition to its economic and geostrategic stakes in winning the
broader Sino-US competition for what both sides perceive their own sphere of influ-
ence. Therefore, the ways in which the East China Sea dispute is addressed would
likely to play a critical role in shaping the overall security order in East Asia as well
as the future of Sino-Japan relations.
This research is designed to explore the increasing rivalry between China and
Japan with particular focus on how their shifting power relations and the politics
of nationalism—both popular and state-promoted nationalism—intertwined with
collective memory of history have affected the Sino-Japanese dispute in the East
China Sea and the regional security order. The structure of this article is as follows.
First, it examines competing analytical frameworks regarding power transition as
well as nationalism, looking into how the regional power shift accompanied by
renewed nationalism may affect the overall security and peace in East Asia. Then,
the East China Sea dispute shall be evaluated, including conflicting positions
between China and Japan over the given issue in conjunction with the differences in
stakes for Beijing and Tokyo in terms of tangible and intangible significance of not
losing their claims amid the evolving regional status quo and rising nationalism in
both countries. The final section recapitulates core findings of the research and their
implications for the future of Sino-Japan relations. In addition, it looks into policy
options for China and Japan, both of which have special interests and responsibili-
ties in constructively managing this conflict and achieving genuine reconciliation so
to build a stable regional order in the twenty-first century.
Power Shift and Nationalism in Sino-Japan Relations
Despite its relative weakening of status as a global hegemon, the USA is still the
most influential state in the world ‘when power is measured in terms of economic
and military assets’ and will remain so for some time to come (Art, 2010, p. 359).

Kim 33
Nonetheless, the relative power and influence in some parts of the world,
most notably in Asia and even beyond, is gradually tipping towards China and
inevitably affecting the power dynamics between this rising Asian giant and its
neighbours, including Japan, one of America’s closest allies (Goldstein, 2007;
Sutter, 2010; Tammen & Kugler, 2006). In general, power transition theory (PTT)
postulates that war is likely to occur against the backdrop of altering power
parity between nations caused by their differential growth rates, especially when
the relative power between a declining dominant state and a rising challenger
approaches parity (Gilpin, 1981; Lemke, 1995; Organski, 1958; Organski &
Kugler, 1980). In addition, variant branches of power transition theory look into
‘[T]he relationship between changes in relative power, hierarchical structures,
and joint satisfaction’ in order to assess the probability of conflict or integration
(Efird, Kugler & Genna, 2003, p. 293). The theory suggests that the future of war
and peace would be determined by the interaction effect between ‘relative
power and the degree of satisfaction with the international order (or status quo)’
(DiCicco & Levy, 1999, p. 682). According to these theoretical assumptions,
catastrophic war is likely to be averted even after a rising China would eventually
become the world’s most powerful state if the country emerges as a satisfied
dominant power with ‘no substantial demands for change to the international
system’s organizing principles’ or to the regional order (Lemke & Tammen, 2003,
p. 270). However, the probability of conflict would rise dramatically if an increas-
ingly powerful China with deep-seated grievances against the existing order—
previously established and maintained by the USA and its core allies like
Japan—seeks to challenge the status quo.
During most of the Cold War when there was an ordered hierarchy, Sino-Japan
power relations were quite stable with neither side having enough capability to
emerge as a regional hegemon or to challenge the East Asian security order, estab-
lished and led by the superpowers. Whereas China was a weak country, marred by
widespread poverty, Japan also fell short of becoming a major power on its own.
Notwithstanding Japan’s successful post-war recovery to the point where it even
became America’s economic rival, it remained under the US security umbrella
while enduring constraints on its military sovereignty in line with its Peace
Constitution. Simultaneously, China embraced the US-led regional order to
counterbalance the Soviet Union during the Sino-Soviet split and to encourage
economically robust and militarily advanced Japan to remain low key, thus con-
straining the former enemy from re-emerging as a threat to China’s national secu-
rity. Although the entire geostrategic context was hierarchical, dominated by the
Cold War superpowers, neither China nor Japan was in a position to assume a
leadership role in East Asia. It was during this time of fairly straightforward
and unequivocal regional status quo when the Sino-Japan rapprochement was
promoted along with the mutually beneficial economic partnership between the
two with neither side willing or able to undermine the interests of the other or to
challenge the existing order.
Since the rise of China and the relative decline of US hegemonic outreach;
however, there has been a greater tension in Sino-Japan relations as each side
more openly struggles to secure its regional dominance and prevent the other

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 5(1)
from becoming a leading player in East Asia. While Beijing and Tokyo continue
to share a common interest in keeping regional stability as a necessary...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT