Experts: Public Fueling Conflict Between China and Japan

Pride and fear among the average citizen are the driving force behind the ongoing dispute.


The disputed islets are known in China as the Diaoyu Islands and in Japan as Senkaku Islands.

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Anger among the Chinese population and fear among Japan's residents are the driving forces behind the increasing tension between the two Pacific Rim countries, according to one conflict expert.

The months-long posturing between the two nations over disputed islands has rapidly increased in recent days. China scrambled fighter jets for the first time since the conflict began almost a year ago, in response to Japan deploying F-15s to tail Chinese observation planes. Japan responded with threats it would begin firing warning shots at the Chinese aircrafts.

Peter Dutton, an Asia conflict expert at the U.S. Naval War College, says acknowledging public sentiment is an important step for both countries, who must delicately consider their next military move.

"The governments are actually a lagging indicator of rising public pressure," says Dutton, a retired Navy Judge Advocate and pilot. This pressure, fueled by the strategic benefits of controlling oil and fishing reserves in the disputed region, is also caused by a sense of national pride, he says.

"These emotions are coming from the public on both sides that help shape governmental actions," he says. "They are powerful emotions that can lead to an absolutist-type thinking—absolutist in the strategic necessity to further one's claims."

The Japanese, who recently elected a new party into power, were "repeatedly kicked in the teeth during the previous administration," says Tom Snitch, an expert in Asia conflicts.

[READ: Japan Joins the QE Bandwagon—But Will it Work?]

"They, like any country, have a sense of national pride, so [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe is giving them what they want: some hardball," he says, adding, "The odds of military engagement is zero."

While neither country may opt for a physical conflict, one may be forced upon them, similar to the 2001 Hainan Island incident, where U.S. and Chinese aircraft collided in mid-air, leading to an international dispute that inflamed an already tense situation.

Before an accident like this takes place, Dutton calls on China and Japan to agree to the parameters of military use.

"Cooler heads in the governments on both sides of the East China Sea have recognized that actual conflict is in neither country's interest," he says. "While some elements within both Chinese and Japanese national security communities are engaged in rhetoric that sounds escalatory, so far there has actually been sufficient restraint."

"Both sides need to start talking and talking now about some sort of operational code of conduct, that limits the likelihood of escalation," he adds. "If both sides won't agree to demilitarize, then there has to be a method of de-confliction so the likelihood of unintended escalation is diminished."

Closed-door meetings would establish the basic framework for a demilitarization agreement, he says, and allow for negotiations for a long-term method of operating peacefully around the same space.

"It's important to reaffirm [the United States'] strong support for the defense of Japan. I also think it's important to be encouraging and articulating to both sides the demilitarization of both sides," says Dutton. "My critique is not just for China, but for Japan as well."

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