China and Japan could avoid conflict in the East China Sea by setting up a “peace zone.”

The clock starts ticking for the next crisis. With China’s announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the strong response from Japan, the United States and several other countries, tensions in East Asia are mounting. Since the crisis over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in September 2012, both China and Japan have begun to conduct frequent air and marine patrols in the Diaoyu/Senkakus area. With the flyby of the American B-52s, the area around these tiny islands has become a zone of tension with high probability of an accident and subsequent conflict. Just like the EP-3 collision incident between the US and China in 2001, if states continue to play this game of chicken, then an accident is inevitable. As anyone who studies East Asian international relations knows, a small accident between China and Japan could immediately escalate into a major crisis and even military conflict. Historical memory plays a powerful role in the security of East Asia, more than any other region.

The current situation is indeed dangerous. Scholars who study Sino-Japanese relations have used historical analogies to warn against major conflict. For example, some compare the situation in Europe in 1914 to the current situation between China and Japan. Even though no state wanted to fight in 1914, war still came about partly by accident and miscommunication. Some scholars have begun to call the current situation another “Thucydidean trap.” Under this line of thinking, the Peloponnesian War was inevitable because of the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta. The real source of conflict between China and Japan is not just the tiny islands in the East China Sea, but also the fear that honor is at stake. For this bilateral relationship, victimhood and historical memory are not just psychological issues or concepts related only to perceptions and attitudes as they are in some other relationships. They are key elements in constructing national identity and influencing foreign policy decision making.

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By Zheng Wang
Zheng Wang is an Associate Professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, USA, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of ”Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.”

Photo: Riot police form a wall with their shields as anti-Japanese protesters demonstrate over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, on September 16, 2012 in Shenzhen, China. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)