Why Do States Care about the Senkaku Islands?

This is a guest post by Doug Gibler.

The recent row between China and Japan over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, as well as the water cannon fight between Taiwan and Japan, has highlighted again the importance of territorial issues in interstate relations.  The dispute led the New York Times to speculate on other possible conflicts around the globe (perhaps fancifully), and the Monkey Cage has covered what the protests mean for both countries.  What hasn’t been asked is why disputes like these matter so much for the countries involved.  Why are a few rocks in the middle of the ocean so important?

My argument in The Territorial Peace: Borders, State Development, and International Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2012), suggests that territorial issues, unlike other issues, are dangerous because of how they affect the citizens and the institutions of the state.   The Senkaku Islands dispute provides a nice example of the types of attitudinal changes that occur in the wake of territorial conflict, across all types of states.  In this post, I discuss three of those changes.

Changes in Individual Attitudes

I argue that public opinion tends to centralize, often in nationalistic ways, when the territories of the state are targeted by conflict.  It begins with the fear of conflict.  Land means survival in many poor countries, and few would want to risk remaining proximate to any type of conflict.  Even in developed countries, land is often an individual’s most valuable asset, and few would want armies fighting for sovereignty of the land.  Threats to land force individuals to band together in groups when their lands are directly targeted.  But, no one lives on the Senkaku Islands and these are not valuable rocks, at least for the average individual, so why should citizens care?

Most individuals are socialized to have an attachment to their lands, and this is often encouraged by the state.  Socialization reinforces group identities, which are helpful for governing and maintaining the group.  Conflict reinforces these group identities by providing each individual with a stark method of group contrast: the out-group necessary for self identification actually has their guns drawn.  For example, the major finding in a forthcoming Comparative Political Studies article is that individuals in states targeted by territorial issues tend to ignore their ethnic or group identity and instead self-identify as members of their nation.  This is true globally, as multi-level analyses of individual responses in 43 countries of the World Values Survey demonstrate that being targeted by territorial conflict is the largest single predictor of nationalism.  It is a stronger predictor than even a combination of individual characteristics like education, age, media, occupation type, and rural or city residence—the traditional predictors of identity.  We also discover this relationship in sub-Saharan Africa.  Using the same model, we find that territorial issues predict nationalism at a much higher rate than any individual characteristics, or state characteristics like elections, economic development, and electoral competitiveness.  Only very large scores on our ethnic fractionalization measure have a stronger substantive effect.

In chapter four of the book (see also an early article in the JoP), I show that these dynamics affect other types of political behavior.  For example, in-group members seldom tolerate members of out-groups when the state is threatened and will most often refuse to let them participate in the political process.  Democratic governments have always been associated with general tolerance within society, but this changes when considered jointly with territorial issues.  Indeed, using multi-level analyses of individual responses to World Values Survey questions on political tolerance, there is no statistically significant relationship between democracy and tolerance once the presence of a targeted territorial dispute is added to the model.  Most democracies have resolved all their outstanding territorial disputes, but those that still have territorial conflicts tend to be less tolerant of their minority groups.  This is why countries like Israel tend to score so much lower on citizen tolerance surveys than islands like Australia or New Zealand, or even the United States (a virtual island, with oceans and friendly neighbors).  Threat changes individual attitudes toward others.  [See here also for several essays from my student, Steve Miller, on other changed attitudes in the wake of territorial conflict; Steve, currently visiting at Illinois, is on the market this year.]

I argue that the centralization of public opinion also stifles political competition within the state.  Opposition parties are put in a precarious strategic position, for example.  Opposition leaders are facing an increasing nationalistic electorate that does not appreciate dissent.  The majority also wants deliverance from the threat and supports the leader.  This environment forces the opposition to also support the leader because to do otherwise would risk being labeled as treacherous to the state and an attack on majority opinion.  This is where the strength of rallies around the flag can best be measured, as I demonstrate that, since 1960, there has never been a significant, active opposition party in a non-democracy when the state has been targeted by a territorial issue (see here for an earlier JCR piece).  Democracies behave similarly; the opposition must wait until either more information from the conflict is revealed or the attitudes of the electorate change.

The nationalism and political tolerance displayed by the citizens of the countries in the Senkaku Islands dispute (see here, here, here, and here) is following a pattern common to most territorial disputes.  Even the opposition parties are demonstrating their resolve (see here and here).  While this dispute most likely will not lead to war in the foreseeable future, the sensitivity of the populations to these rocks in the ocean underscores the strong processes of centralization underlying most territorial issues.  In my next post I will return to a discussion of China and Japan and outline how, historically, territorial animosities have led to institutional centralization in both states at various times over the last couple of centuries.  Think of it this way: if these rocks can change so many attitudes, imagine what the invasion of Manchuria may have done!
Note: I will be periodically blogging about territorial conflict and state development issues on the blog for the book.  You can also follow those posts with this RSS feed.

5 Responses to Why Do States Care about the Senkaku Islands?

  1. Luke October 8, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Interesting piece on the group psychology of nationalism, but unless I’m mistaken, aren’t there offshore resource extraction rights in the mix too? If Japan keeps the Senkaku, won’t that extend their territorial waters, and allow them to lay claim to the resources below, with the same going for the Chinese? With Chinese control over much of the world’s rare earths, and their constant demand for energy, this spat seems to have a pretty pertinent economic dimension to it.

    Look forward to your piece on the interplay between territoriality disputes and institutional consolidation!

  2. doug gibler October 8, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    Hi Luke,

    Thanks for your interest! I of course agree with you that resources play a big role in the cause and recurrence of the dispute, but I don’t think economics has much to do with the change in mass political attitudes in either state. Diffuse benefits (Japan) are not enough to change opinions, and concentrated benefits (China) aren’t diffuse enough to sway mass opinion. I do think the economics part of the argument matters somewhat for institutionalization though. Again, thanks!


    • Ada May 26, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

      I disagree. Actually, Luke makes a very good point–resources do play a dominant role over mass public opinion.

      The Chinese and Japanese governments are responsible for creating public opinion in their respective countries. Therefore, mass political attitudes toward territorial sovereignty is a result of government manipulation. Because each government recognizes the incredible economic value of the vast natural resources at stake, both Beijing and Tokyo have manipulated public support to further reaffirm territorial claims. This follows the logic of an “instrumental identity,” or that identities are created by a political elite for its own gain.

      Interesting post, though. Thanks!

  3. Nikhil October 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    You focus much on how conflict reinforces group identities, reduces tolerance of opposition etc, but less on why territorial conflicts in particular matter. You argue that “territorial issues, unlike other issues, are dangerous because of how they affect the citizens.” But I am still not sure how/why people are “socialized to have an attachment to their lands,” including uninhabited islands.
    You hint at one possible causal mechanism: “encouraged by the state.” But I wish you would unpack it some more. I suppose I could just get your book or relevant article.

  4. doug gibler October 10, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    Yes, I’d have to appeal to the book to answer that question. Sorry. There’s just not much room in a blog post to get at full explanations, and I’m trying to pack in a lot of existing research here.