[Analysis] China-Japan: Ping-Pong Diplomacy in the East China Sea

Rebecca Marighella
[REPORT] China-Japan: Ping-Pong Diplomacy in the East China Sea
The origins of the term “Ping Pong Diplomacy” root back to the 1970s. Source: BBC

Ping-pong is among the most popular sports in East Asia, so much so that it seems to have become a lifestyle considering that, at times, countries in the region engage in international affairs as if they were playing a match of ping-pong.

The expression ‘ping-pong diplomacy‘ becomes increasingly significant in the 1970s, when China and the U.S. meet at a ping-pong table for the first time after decades of silence and separation, to symbolize the start of a new friendship.

Interestingly enough, this approach to politics seems to be a favorite choice when it comes to Chinese Foreign Policy. Tensions that surround the countries both in-land and at sea, such as the South China Sea issue and the Tibetan issue, are only a few of the multiple examples that emphasize China’s predilection to alternate its soft power to moments of greater pressure with complicated neighbors.

Events in the East China Sea, however, appear to slightly lack focus in the journalistic literature. When discussing Sino-Japanese relations, in fact, it is likely for other topics to emerge first, since there is little widespread knowledge about tensions in the Western Pacific Ocean.

Tensions in the East China Sea

There, Japan has magnificent islands that detain a huge quantity of natural resources, considered inestimable. Mostly gathered in the East China Sea, islands belonging to the Okinawa Prefecture are incredible sources of revenue for the touristic sector, but are unfortunately situated in an area that has been heavily contended between China Mainland and Japan for centuries. 

The East China Sea borders with Japan (through its Southern Prefectures and the Ryukyu Islands), Taiwan (China), the eastern coast of the People’s Republic of China, and South Korea. The main disputes over maritime territories however, have involved China Mainland and Japan, both claiming the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands, in Mandarin Chinese). The rationale behind these claims is due to the presence of potential oil reserves close to Senkaku. 

While the Japanese official news, The Asahi Shimbun, has reported the willingness of the Japanese to sell out or rent out uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, tensions with China keep growing due to multiple interventions done by the U.S. backing Japan.

It is no news, in fact, that Japan might have a certain habit to vacillate between the fine line of diplomatic legitimacy and real estate business. Back in 2012, a member of the Japanese government had made a 2-billion-yen purchase of three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, creating overwhelming social unrest among Chinese public opinion, compelling its government to send the military immediately. 

Sources have frequently reported that tensions in the Senkaku Islands often view the navy or air-force of both China and Japan monitoring the area, thankfully barely ever reaching an armed conflict. The Guardian has reported that there might be ‘daily patrols to the Senkakus, a trip of five or six hours each way, with teams on standby to show up in greater force’.

Naval ships and aircrafts are fully equipped with heavy weapons; however, it is highly improbable either government is ever going to risk a war between the two major polities in East Asia. Such ‘cold’ confrontation has been going on for so long that, if either country had exclusive intentions in the disputed zone, war would have not been put on pause. 

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute Explained. (Credit: Al Jazeera)

Sino-Japanese Relations

Japan and China may be very different from multiple ideological, social, and political perspectives, however, they are united by a strong sense of East Asian identity. They extensively engage with the regional economy both together and individually. China and Japan collaborate yearly with Southeast Asian countries in the ASEAN+3 mechanism and value their strong economic trio with South Korea. Japan, which has a rather pacific attitude in international affairs, also understands that China has far bigger concerns that are more desirably solvable compared to the issue in the East China Sea.

[REPORT] China-Japan: Ping-Pong Diplomacy in the East China Sea
Source: Geopolitica.info

In fact, the South China Sea seems to constitute a similar problem on a much larger scale that China has to address. The maritime territories in the South of China involve the claims of multiple angry actors that are convinced Chinese claims expand the PRC’s borders too generously. 

None of the countries bordering the East or South China Sea however, is likely to start a serious conflict with such an emerging power, but rather utilize trade and economic sanctions to invigilate Chinese behavior at sea. China and Japan are both extremely powerful in the region and both believe their approach to diplomacy is more appropriate than the other’s, but it is unlikely that they will allow any type of conflict that could weaken them both individually and as Asian regional leaders. While Japan may be an ally of the U.S., it does not enjoy its intervention in Asia and, like China, agrees that ‘Asia is for the Asians’.

The possible solutions to the East China Sea dispute remain debatable. Surely, it will still take decades before either China or Japan decide to give in a share of the territories. This is an extremely delicate issue which however, is extremely valuable as it invites the international reader to reflect on China’s soft power and legitimacy over territories in the region.

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