Public Diplomacy on the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands

The sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands seems to have evolved over the past year. The diplomatic impasse is nothing new, and the claims and legal arguments are the same as before. But the level of public diplomacy has increased dramatically. Legal merits aside, some commentators have concluded that China is now winning in the court of international public opinion. I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but I agree that Japan hasn’t done a particularly good job explaining itself to foreign audiences. In this post, I want to briefly compare the parties’ diplomatic efforts and then offer a few suggestions on how Japan might improve its strategy.

Advocates of the Chinese position have mounted a sustained, multi-pronged public relations campaign to discredit Japanese control over the Islands. Government officials have raised the issue in foreign media outlets and at international conferences. Chinese academics have published a series of articles in English to explain the basis for Chinese title. There’s even a government effort to publicize a recent English-language documentary that supports China’s position. (Several official news outlets have given favorable reviews, and the film has a miraculously high IMDB rating of 9.8 out of 10, which in theory means it’s one of the best movies ever made. Ratings for The Godfather (9.2) and Pulp Fiction (9.0) are unimpressive by comparison.)

The intensity and scale of these efforts reflect a couple of underlying conditions: First, due to historical grievances against Japan, people from China tend to feel quite passionately about the dispute. The idea of another incursion is simply intolerable to many. Second, China has vast human resources at its disposal, whether in the form of scholars who write academic articles, artists who make films, or private citizens who echo the official position. Drawing on these resources, China has managed to garner a certain level of international sympathy by tethering the Senkaku dispute to a familiar (and basically correct, but irrelevant) narrative about the militant and imperialistic nature of Japanese foreign policy during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Japan has started to respond. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently produced videos and other content (here and here) defending Japan’s position, and some officials have joined the op-ed debate. But I think there’s still significant room for improvement. I’ll offer three suggestions:

First, Tokyo needs to change the way it frames the dispute to international audiences, particularly citizens of the United States. The government should abandon the common refrain that a dispute doesn’t exist. That position comes across as obviously false to the American public and hurts Tokyo’s credibility. As long as Japan and China both claim the Senkakus exclusively for themselves, there is a clear dispute over sovereignty. Period. What Tokyo should say instead is that there is no legitimate dispute. That position wouldn’t really give anything to China—to recognize that a dispute exists is not to say that China’s claim is justified, or even better than frivolous. And the change would preserve rather than damage Japan’s credibility.

Second, Tokyo should emphasize further that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japanese militarism is a red herring. As I’ve explained elsewhere, the basis for Japanese sovereignty is not aggression or imperialism, but effective control and longstanding Chinese acquiescence.

Finally, Tokyo needs to work with Washington to better explain to the American public why they should care about the dispute. Given the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, Japan expects the United States to come to its defense in the event of military conflict. But a treaty doesn’t guarantee action, and to many people it’s not obvious that the United States should honor the commitment. The Islands, after all, are uninhabited, small, and remotely located in the western Pacific, and defending Japan against China would be enormously costly in both military and economic terms. To answer these concerns, Japan needs to spell out more clearly what would happen if China seized the Islands and the United States failed to respond. Potential consequences include further Chinese expansion in the western Pacific, severe and likely irreparable damage to the U.S.-Japan alliance, significant harm to the credibility of the international rule of law, full Japanese rearmament, and a rapid and destabilizing arms race in East Asia. By highlighting these risks, Tokyo and Washington will make it easier for U.S. officials to commit to honoring the Security Treaty before the American public.

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