M. Taylor Fravel with a reasonably controversial claim that China may actually be willing to use force to consolidate its claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands:
Since 1949, China has been involved in 23 territorial disputes with its neighbors on land and at sea. Seventeen of them have been settled, usually through compromise agreements. Nevertheless, China has used force, often more than once, in six of these disputes. And it’s these cases that most closely parallel the Senkaku impasse.
To start, China has usually only used force in territorial disputes with its most militarily capable neighbors. These include wars or major clashes with India, Russia and Vietnam (several times), as well as crises involving Taiwan. These states have had the greatest ability to check China’s territorial ambitions. In disputes with weaker states, such as Mongolia or Nepal, Beijing has eschewed force because it could negotiate from a position of strength. Japan is now China’s most powerful maritime neighbor, with a modern navy and a large coast guard.
China has also used force most frequently in disputes over offshore islands such as the Senkakus. Along its land border, China has used force only in about one-fifth of 16 disputes. By contrast, China has used force in half of its four island disputes. Islands are seen as possessing much more strategic, military and economic value because they influence sea-lane security and may hold vast stocks of hydrocarbons and fish.
In addition, China has mostly used force to strengthen its position in disputes where it has occupied little or none of the land that it claims. In 1988, for example, China clashed with Vietnam as it occupied six coral reefs that are part of the Spratly Islands. China had claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys for decades—but had not controlled any part of them before this occupation.
The final destabilizing factor in the Senkaku standoff is that both sides are simultaneously engaged in other island disputes. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak recently broke with tradition and became the first Seoul leader to visit the disputed Dokdo (Takeshima) Islands, which are occupied by the Koreans but also claimed by Japan. Meanwhile, China has been dueling with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Tokyo and Beijing may both conclude that whoever prevails in the Senkakus will have a better chance at prevailing in these other disputes.
History is not destiny. China has not used force in a territorial dispute for more than 20 years. Escalation over the Senkakus may be avoided. Nevertheless, the current situation is fraught with danger. Should a fatal incident occur involving government ships from either country, a real crisis may begin whose end cannot be foretold.