At the time the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue flared up in September 2012, one explanation making the rounds was that it had to do with China’s pending leadership change. But it was never clear in which way. I could never draw a direct line between the political transition in China and the more aggressive tone China took towards Japan on the issue. Of course, it is also hard to see how the purchase of three of the islands by the Tokyo government would have looked to Chinese eyes.
Nonetheless, this article from the Asahi Shimbun lays out a scenario that’s not implausible: Japan and China were working towards a resolution until something shifted on the Chinese side. That’s the explanation of DPJ lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima who acted a special adviser to then PM Yoshihiko Noda on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issues.
After rounds of discussions, the Japanese officials became “positive about the prospects of being able to elicit a ‘tacit acceptance’ from China,” he wrote.
But “a group of Chinese leaders who were inclined to accept (Noda’s policy) lost its clout” in the intensifying power squabble ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress.
The “‘collaboration’ by Japanese and Chinese diplomatic authorities was crushed,” according to the book, and anti-Japanese sentiment spread after Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands.
This makes sense for two reasons:
1) The Chinese communist party takes decisions largely by committee, which makes them notoriously difficult to get answers from during a crisis. This has happened with hotlines set up between the China and other countries. So the notion that no one single could be achieved on the Chinese side is credible.
2) The fact that the Chinese Communist Party relies on the consenus of committee means that if a committee is interrupted or
subject to a power struggle, decisions can and will be deferred.
Into that vacuum, the Chinese coast guard and any authority that minds China’s borders would not want to appear weak. Until recently when the Chinese Coast Guard was reorganized, they could make on-the-spot decisions about handling issues at sea on the proviso they didn’t make China look weak. And so you would have part of the cocktail of escalation on one side ready-made.