You say, and I believe you, that you have an abiding interest in Asia,
So let's examine, broadly but substantively, the various points you've raised about China's "aggressiveness", vis-a-vis the historical and the present regional backdrop.
- The Diaoyu/Senkaku issue was previously a non-issue. The Japanese physically administered it, while the Chinese formally laid claim to it. So the matter lay dormant, with both sides basically ignoring each other, and taking a hands-off approach.
The islands were privately owned, but not under the formal control of Japan's government. That was acceptable to China. Point was this: Japan sits on it, but doesn't plant its flag. China claims it, but doesn't attempt to displace Japanese physical control. This was a very stable long-term situation, imho. They agreed to disagree.
But then, Japan obtained formal governmental rule of the islands, taking control from the private Japanese owners. This was a change from the accepted status quo, and for China, it was a clear attempt at, as you so aptly put it, salami-slicing pieces of their national territory.
And given the tragic, terrible history of China's "Century of Humiliation" at the hands of mighty imperialist powers, from the Chinese perspective (which you JasonJ seek to understand, as do I), such incremental territorial enroachments are simply unacceptable. The old Manchurian Qing Dynasty, in its weakness, invariably agreed to whatever demands Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States made upon it - whether extra-territoriality (foreign citizens could not be tried in Chinese courts, no matter the crime), the right to station armies in China, punitive expeditions, commercial concessions, or worst of all, outright colonization and annexation (see: Hong Kong, Macao and Shanghai International Quarter etc).
This century-long epoch bred an attitude of "Never Again" in the Chinese people. But China was still weak and backward, so fell prey to Militarist Imperial Japan in 1931 to 1945. It merely made the Chinese more determined than ever to be masters of their own land, every square millimeter of it. No precedent of abandoning China's sovereignty in the slightest could be permitted.
From China's perspective, the border wars with both India and the old Soviet Union were about defending national integrity. The wars in Korea and Vietnam were about keeping powerful empires well away from the homeland, in case the descendants of the original conquerors decided to humiliate and oppress Chinese people again.
So the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue could not be simply ignored. In the eyes of China, Japan was daring China to fire first in a confrontation. China turned that around and simply ignored Japan's coast guard, brazenly sailing ships into the islands' waters. China was in turn daring Japan to shoot first.
IMHO, the Diaoyu/Senkaku matter is again at a stable equilibrium, but a more tense one, and it is not China, but Japan in this instance that has needlessly escalated the tension. They should have left well enough alone.
To expect China to drop the Diaoyu/Senkaku claim, and simply concede the matter to Japan, is actually unrealistic and more importantly unjust from a historical perspective.
- The South China Sea claims: are driven by a combination of the same "fear of salami-slicing" as above, and what can be termed a regional "scramble for the seas" (think "Scramble for Africa", but in the SCS).
See the ff. map for how much of a godawful mess that is.
China is well-known to claim all those little islets and shoals.
But see the Filipino, Malaysian and Vietnamese claims? They reach out far into the sea, far from any of their respective main coasts, and furthermore, overlap each other! These nations have disputes, serious ones, among themselves.
IMHO, the claims of other Asian states in the SCS are just as outrageous as China's, or alternately, China's claims are just as fair as theirs - take you pick. What is patently illogical and unfair is to say China is wrong, and the others are all right. Take China out of the picture, and the "Scramble for The South China Sea" would still be on, and would be equally nasty.
Did you know that Filipinos tried to lay claim to parts of the Malaysian Sabah province in I believe 2013? They landed armed but unsanctioned parties, which triggered an actual military response from Malaysia. That is how contentious the area is.
Ought China drop or scale back its claims to the SCS? I think one of two things should happen, for things to be truly impartial and just: Either ALL claimants should drop all their claims to all the islet groups (Pratas, Paracel, Scarborough, Spratly, Macclesfield) OR maintain the present stable status quo and simply traverse the area with their fishing fleets, naval vessels and commercial shipping. Either way seems to work.
But to single out China as the greedy expansionist, when they're all pretty much the same way, is simply irrational and unfair.
Why keep shining the spotlight on one nation's behavior, and ignoring or condoning that of the rest?
I do not get it!
Edited by Heirophant, 09 August 2014 - 2237 PM.