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Neoclassical Realism’s Perspective on China’s Policy Toward the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Open Access

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For the first few decades since the dispute over the Senkaku Islands first became issue between Japan and China in the late 1960s, China had taken a moderate policy, emphasizing on shelving the dispute and focusing on joint development. After the end of the Cold War, however, China has taken more assertive measures over the Senkaku Islands, such as increasing its maritime activities around the islands. Meanwhile, China remains willing to maintain stability in its relationship with Japan, and has accordingly taken several measures to seek cooperation with Japan over the territorial dispute. The previous studies that focused on either systemic factors or domestic factors fail to explain China’s growing assertiveness over the dispute combined with its attempts to maintain its stable relationship with Japan. This paper attempts to fill this gap by applying a Neoclassical Realism’s framework, which synthesizes both systemic and domestic factors to explain China’s Senkaku policy.This thesis identifies systemic factors as polarity and material capabilities, and domestic factors as the Chinese Communist Party’s performance legitimacy and nationalism. The systemic factors indicate that China has become more assertive over the Senkaku Islands since the end of the Cold War because of the demise of the threat from the Soviet Union and of its growing capabilities. And the domestic factors explain China’s attempts to maintain stable relationship with Japan. The necessity of sustaining economic growth for political legitimacy, for which Japan’s economic market is indispensable, forces China to prevent tension with Japan from getting too high. And the necessity of answering growing nationalism which demands more assertive policy toward the Senkaku Islands at the same time as maintaining economic growth makes China prefer “reactive assertiveness”, or using an action by another party as justification to push back hard and change the facts on the ground in its favor. In this way, China can placate nationalists’ demand as being assertive, but China also can maintain relatively stable relationship because it is “reactive”, rather than outright assertiveness, which would harm its relations with Japan more. The combination of these systemic and domestic factors result in China’s growing assertive policy over the Senkaku Islands at the same time as attempting to maintain stable relationship with Japan.

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