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Asia

Opinion: Dangerous escalation over disputed islands

Tensions between Japan and China are mounting over a group of islands in the East China Sea. Two US B-52 bombers recently flew over the area. DW's Matthias von Hein writes it's high time to de-escalate.

The tense situation in the East China Sea, where Japanese and Chinese territorial claims overlap, became even more strained over the weekend. By unilaterally declaring a new air defense zone, Beijing added fuel to a fire which has been smouldering for some time now.

Matthias von Hein, head of DW's Chinese department (Photo: DW)

Matthias von Hein is head of DW's Chinese department

The generously measured zone includes the airspace over a group of disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. What happens if Japan and the United States refuse to acknowledge the air defense zone? How will China react to the "loss of face?"

China's move and the quick US reaction of sending (unarmed) long-range bombers to the area have taken the dispute from the water to the air. The ships that have so far been circling one another in the contested waters are slow, and confrontations are rather controllable. But in the air everything happens quickly, increasing the risk for miscalculations, confrontations and accidents.

A paradoxical confrontation

It seems paradoxical. A dispute over eight uninhabited rocks in the ocean threatens to plunge three states with highly interconnected economies into a cycle of escalating provocations. In terms of trade, all three countries are very important for each other, with trade volumes amounting to hundreds of billions of US dollars.

However, the close economic ties haven't neutralized nationalist tendencies and forces. Chinese resentment sparked by Japan's brutal crimes in China during World War II often clashes with an anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan, where many see themselves potentially threatened by China's military rise.

Tokyo should not put up with Beijing's antics, many people in Japan say. Moreover, both countries are ruled by governments which are not afraid of playing the nationalist card to hold on to power.

A dangerous game

China's new leadership under President Xi Jinping recently consolidated its power at the third plenum of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee. The country's leaders are keen to demonstrate their resolve. This has triggered a national frenzy in the population, which is difficult to control.

China's internet forums are abuzz with calls for tough measures against Japan. Statements such as "only war can teach Japan to respect China's sovereignty" can be read there.

China can rightly say that other countries also have air defense zones. And Beijing certainly has the right to contest Tokyo's sovereignty claims over the disputed island chain, albeit peacefully. But the stakes are simply too high for the dispute to be resolved through ever growing saber-rattling and provocations.

This should be the hour used for diplomacy and negotiations, maybe even for the involvement of independent international bodies such as the International Court of Justice in the Hague. It is certainly not the time for saber-rattling.