Can Europe Help Reduce Sino-Japanese Tensions?

BRUSSELS— It is not unthinkable that the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands could devolve into outright conflict. Both China and Japan are reluctant to talk openly: Japan fears that accepting the disputed nature of the islands will add legitimacy to China’s claim and give it an incentive to take further assertive measures, while virulent anti-Japanese sentiments in China limit that country’s ability and willingness to negotiate or compromise. Although the United States’ position as a regional balancer is indispensable, its alliance with Japan and rivalry with China present the troubling prospect of a confrontation between superpowers. Under these circumstances, the European Union could be able to pursue a more active diplomatic role in the region.

The dispute over what are called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China has been a subject of disagreement for 41 years. The more recent difficulties date to Japan’s nationalization of the islands in September 2012. Since then, the two sides have been engaged in a military, economic, and diplomatic tit-for-tat, with the latest being Beijing’s decision last month to establish an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the disputed territory. In response to China’s assertiveness and its military build-up, Japan’s post-war debate about full constitutional rearmament has intensified. China’s establishment of its ADIZ also sparked a flurry of diplomatic condemnation from the region’s other key stakeholders: Korea has announced the expansion of its own ADIZ for the first time in 62 years and the United States went so far as to fly a pair of B-52 bombers into China’s newly designated airspace.

Reluctant, however, to be pulled deeper into what could become a military conflict with China over a group of uninhabited rocks, Washington has been treading cautiously. While the ADIZ dominated U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to China earlier this month, his public silence about the zone indicated the United States’ desire to deescalate tensions. But the absence of regular discussion or safety protocols between China and Japan mean that the risks of the dispute sliding into military confrontation remain high.

Europe may not at first glance appear the most obvious mediator between China and Japan. Absorbed with crises in its own neighborhood, Brussels has yet to fully focus on the risks of continued tension in the East China Sea. But it holds several advantages. Despite its arms embargo against China, Europe is still seen as a relatively neutral security actor in Northeast Asia. And having played a crucial role in the successful negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, respect for the EU as a credible foreign policy actor is higher than it has been since the start of the euro crisis — including in China.

There are also benefits to be accrued by Brussels deepening its diplomatic involvement in Asia. An increased European diplomatic presence could serve as a useful reminder to Northeast Asia that there is a viable alternative to military build-ups and brinkmanship. While discussion of the EU model of regionalization for Asia is a tired one, Europe’s success does demonstrate the capacity of states to put aside historical tensions and nationalist sentiments. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton may be reluctant to take on a monumental new challenge so close to the end of her tenure, fearing damage to a hard-earned legacy, but the pay-off — helping to avoid an escalation into a full-fledged great power conflict — could be worth the risk. Indonesia has already demonstrated the utility of such an approach in its facilitation of exchanges between China and various Southeast Asian countries during the height of tensions over the South China Sea.

As the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program showed, Europe and the United States work best in concert when resolving major challenges to global security. While the United States’ incomparable military influence and power in Asia remain essential to preserving regional stability, Europe could help play a crucial role in securing regional peace.

Amy Studdart is a program officer and Sophie Dembinski is a trainee with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program.

The views expressed here are the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the stance of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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