That same month, tensions shot up after Japan announced it was buying the disputed islands from private Japanese owners for nearly $30 million. The move prompted riots in China, and trade between the two Asian powers suffered. Diplomatic relations sputtered. And Chinese and Japanese ships clashed on the seas, ramming and spraying each other with water cannons.
In the five months since, there has been a flurry of official interest in China’s documentary backing for its territorial claims.
Several seminars and conferences were convened by government-affiliated think tanks. At one high-profile gathering in Shanghai, scholars concluded with a five-point consensus “to pool together our wisdom” and “to safeguard the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands and to oppose Japan’s violation.”
China’s State Council issued a 5,200-word white paper that laid out, point by exhaustive point, China’s case.
This fall, key historical documents, atlases and journals were assembled into an exhibit at China’s National Library. The library’s official statement included a sneering reference to the “sheer historical lie” of Japan’s claims, and the displays included records from imperial envoys stretching back to the Ming dynasty in the 1300s.
Maps — ancient and modern — have been a particular area of focus, with the government’s scientific and academic subsidiaries pumping out atlases, three-dimensional graphs and sketches of both disputed areas. New passports were outfitted with maps that include a dotted area that pointedly marks China’s claimed portions of the South China Sea. Even weather reports on state-run television have been amended to add forecasts for disputed areas.
Some international scholars, however, question how much credibility the recent burst of historical studies and technical data adds to China’s claims — especially given the fact that most think tanks and universities in China remain firmly in the grip of the Communist Party and its government.
“If you look at the academic documents and arguments, especially on the Chinese side, the conclusions across the board look like one unified piece of concrete,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “It’s concerning on an academic level to talk to people without a shred of doubt affecting their mind. It suggests a lack of ability to seriously evaluate the other side’s arguments. The whole truth is often more complicated.”
Chinese scholars defend their work as sound, even as some are trying to build credibility by relying less on Chinese documents and instead finding foreign materials to support China’s claims.
“We are not lacking in domestic evidence,” said Li Guoqiang, an expert on disputed territories at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But it would be even more convincing to the international community if we can use the evidence of our opponents.”
Most acknowledge that their research alone isn’t likely to solve such intractable territorial disputes. But they argue that it does provide a safe arena for conflict in an era of mounting tensions. In this month’s latest, Japanese officials said a Chinese naval vessel had threatened a Japanese warship by locking a weapons-guiding radar on it.
With the way the region is heating up, even academics working to support China’s claims wonder where the conflict might ultimately lead.
“I worry about the Sino-Japanese relationship, especially this year,” said Zhou Yongsheng, an expert at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. “If [Japan] keeps following their current policies, the situation will deteriorate even worse. And China is very assertive to take countermeasures if necessary. It could get unpredictable and out of control.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.