China’s standoff with Japan over the rocky Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands has entered its second month. The current confrontation, however, is more dangerous than is commonly believed. China’s past behavior in other territorial disputes demonstrates why the Senkaku standoff is primed to explode.
Since 1949, China has been involved in 23 territorial disputes with its neighbors on land and at sea. Seventeen of them have been settled, usually through compromise agreements. Nevertheless, China has used force, often more than once, in six of these disputes. And it’s these cases that most closely parallel the Senkaku impasse.
To start, China has usually only used force in territorial disputes with its most militarily capable neighbors. These include wars or major clashes with India, Russia and Vietnam (several times), as well as crises involving Taiwan. These states have had the greatest ability to check China’s territorial ambitions. In disputes with weaker states, such as Mongolia or Nepal, Beijing has eschewed force because it could negotiate from a position of strength. Japan is now China’s most powerful maritime neighbor, with a modern navy and a large coast guard.