The current dispute between China and Japan over a few barren islands inhabited by goats – called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese – looks at first sight to be a mere territorial spat. But it has escalated to a very dangerous level in recent months — first words, then actions of police forces, now actions of air forces, and, behind all these, both sides have mobilised all their military, political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural energies to engage in the dispute. It is more fundamental than normal territorial disputes, because the very identities of the two countries are at stake.
A strong narrative has taken hold in the West and much of East Asia about China’s behaviour, which starts with the proposition that China is the provocateur. Examples include, “China sows new seeds of conflict with neighbours”; China has adopted an “increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, especially Japan”; “China…has launched a new campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkaku islands…. Beijing has sought to challenge Japan’s decades-old control, despite the risk that an accident could spiral out of control”.