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Why a small island chain is causing big problems for China and Japan
Since April, China and Japan and have been arguing, with increasing intensity, over a small group of barren, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Both Asian giants lay claim to the rocky outcrop (pictured above), which is known to the Japanese as the Senkakus and to the Chinese as the Diaoyus. Tensions, military drills and protests have escalated to the point that The Economist recently asked "Could China and Japan really go to war over these? Sadly, yes."
Steven W. Lewis, the Baker Institute's C.V. Starr Transnational China Fellow, offered his insights on the situation for a new Baker Institute feature, "Five Questions." The series, which will appear in the institute's newsletter, blog and website, aims to shed light on current events, institute research and policy issues by tapping into a vast store of knowledge at the Baker Institute: our 51 fellows and scholars.
Here, then, are five questions for Steven W. Lewis on the growing conflict along the East China Sea:
1. The dispute over the islands has been on the back burner for years. What caused it to erupt again?
In April, Tokyo's nationalist governor proposed buying the islands from a private Japanese landowner. This compelled Japan's central government to buy the islands themselves to prevent, it said, an escalation of the situation. China viewed Japan's move as an effort to assert control. Protesters demonstrated in both countries, and rioters attacked Japanese-owned companies in China. The foreign ministers of Japan and China have met to discuss the issue and President Obama has sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Tokyo and Beijing to defuse tensions.
2. Why are Japan and China determined to claim the islands as theirs?
The islands have a symbolic value for nationalists in both countries; each has grievances against the other that date back to World War II and before. For the governments involved, it's a matter of showing strength. Neither country wants to be seen as weak. China's authoritarian government is preparing for the 18th Party Congress in October 2012, in which formal reins of power will be handed over to the current vice president. Once-in-a-decade leadership transition periods are not a good time for Chinese leaders to be seen as flexible or complacent in the shadow of potential conflict with foreign powers. As a result, China's local party leaders have displayed skill at balancing popular outrage about the islands and public order by simultaneously encouraging, facilitating and then tamping down popular protests against Japan in cities across China.
Japan's democracy is still reeling from the 2011 earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster, as well as the resulting government leadership resignations and sustained popular protests against government economic planning and its reliance on nuclear power. Premier Yoshihiko Noda cannot afford another major crisis [should China take control of the islands] and more potential votes of no-confidence in the Diet. Noda needs stable foreign relations in order to focus on internal political conflict.
3. Is the dispute related to the possibility of finding oil and gas beneath the seabed?
A lot of stories about oil and gas in the East China Sea are very much exaggerated. Nobody in the Japanese or Chinese government or in the energy industry in those countries views that area as significant for oil and gas. If it was about oil, China and Japan could settle the dispute because they have worked out agreements on how to share energy resources.
4. Should Americans be paying more attention to the dispute?
We have a treaty with Japan under which the U.S. Navy will come to their aid if Japanese territory is attacked. We have soldiers and sailors stationed in Japan, potentially in harm's way. The United States could easily be drawn into a war over this.
5. How could this issue be resolved?
China and Japan really don't want to get into a battle. Most experts in the West believe the two nations will once again return to the negotiating table in order to resolve their dispute. But the conditions for a perfect storm for a military confrontation still exist.
Both countries will be making statements about the situation at the United Nations. Maybe they'll realize how small they’ll look when two powers in the United Nations argue over rocks. The UN could be an opportunity to think of the big picture. It's actually embarrassing for two major modern powers to be arguing over this.
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New fellow in disease and poverty named
Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and a nationally recognized pediatrician and tropical disease specialist, has been named the new fellow in disease and poverty at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. His appointment will expand the Baker Institute's expertise and research in the area of global health policy, said founding director Edward P. Djerejian.
"It's a great honor to become a Baker fellow," Hotez said. "I am looking forward to shaping public policy for neglected tropical diseases and other conditions of poverty with the Baker Institute at Rice, together with Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine."
At BCM, Hotez is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, head of the section of Pediatric Tropical Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair of Tropical Pediatrics. Hotez is also president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute (based in Washington, D.C.), and co-founded the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, an initiative of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, to provide access to essential medicines for millions of people worldwide.
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The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan public policy think tank located on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. The institute's distinguished fellows and scholars research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.