It seems unlikely that a territorial dispute over some obscure, uninhabited islands could provoke serious hostilities, but major wars have been fought over less. The current dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands lying in the East China Sea has that potential.
While the world isn’t paying much attention, it is no mere sideshow. And it is playing out in an increasingly unstable part of the world as China begins to flex its new military muscle and a brash North Korean missile test injects even more instability in the region.
The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands arouses deep emotions and passions. Nationalist feelings are always close to the surface in relations between Japan and China. Memories of Japan’s brutal invasion in the 1930s still run raw and deep. Once aroused, nationalist sentiments can be difficult to quench.
China became Japan’s top export market in 2009, surpassing the U.S., and Japan is China’s third-largest market after the EU and the U.S. Two-way trade exceeded $345 billion in 2011. Japanese investment in China reached 1 trillion yen in 2011. Despite the vast economic ties between the two countries, squabbles over “sovereignty” threaten to trump economic self-interest.
Both countries have new leaders who will be sorely tested in how they handle this conflict. The election in Japan returned the conservative LDP party led by Shinzo Abe to power in a resounding landslide victory. A new third force — the Japan Restoration party, led by the ultra-nationalist author and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara — made an impressive debut, capturing 54 seats. Some elements of the Chinese media and public are calling already for a boycott on Japanese goods and ridiculing Japan’s new prime minister. However, in his first press interview after his party’s electoral win, Abe said that he planned to work hard to improve bilateral relations with China — which he acknowledged had been badly damaged by the dispute.
The historical background of the islands’ ownership is murky and predates the San Francisco Peace Treaty. After confirming that the islands were not under the control of any other sovereign nation, Japan incorporated them into its territory in 1895 on the principle of “terra nullia” (no man’s land.) However, China (and Taiwan) continue to assert that the islands had been Chinese since the 14th or 15th century and were confiscated illegally as part of the settlement of the 1895 war in which Japan also claimed Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores islands.
Japan rejects this claim, saying the islands were not part of the 1895 Shimonoseki treaty that ended the war. The Chinese counter-claim is that Japanese annexation was not accepted internationally.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were not included in the territories which Japan renounced under Article II of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952, which formally ended the war between Japan and the United States. The islands were put under U.S. administration in accordance with Article III of the San Francisco Treaty; administrative rights reverted to Japan in 1971. At roughly the same time, the governments of China and Taiwan began to assert their own sovereignty over the islands, their interest piqued by a UN Economic Commission study which indicated that there might be significant oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea.
China considers the 1971 agreement reverting control of the islands to Japan to be null and void and enacted legislation in 1992 that designates the islands as Chinese.
And if that isn’t complicated enough, consider this. Because the islands, under Japanese domestic law, were owned privately, the governor of Tokyo — the same Shintaro Ishihara now elected to the Diet to lead the Restoration party — made a highly publicized move earlier this year to buy the islands. To contain matters, the Japanese government stepped in and purchased the islands itself. Ownership had been held by the government up to 1932 but had then been transferred to private individuals.
In the latest round of this dispute, on August 15 Chinese activists sailed to Uotsuri-shima, one of the islands of the Senkaku chain in the East China Sea, and in a brazen act of defiance planted a Chinese flag to commemorate the 67th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. Japanese Coast Guard ships countered by removing the flags and conducting regular patrols to shadow Chinese naval vessels involved in similar activity.
The two navies have been jockeying warily around the islands ever since. More recently, the skirmishes moved to the air as well. A Chinese reconaissance flight over the islands prompted Japan to scramble F-14 fighter aircraft.
In recent months, sporadic and perhaps orchestrated demonstrations have erupted in China against these moves, targeting Japanese firms in particular. Sales of Japanese autos have plummeted and the dispute has put a heavy strain on bilateral economic relations. Airlines from China and Japan have cut or delayed flights and Japanese businesses have closed many stores and factories in China because of the protests. Japan claims that these firms have absorbed well over $100 million in losses.
In late November, Japan’s foreign minister at the time, Koichiro Genba, took the unusual step of publishing an opinion article in the Washington Post outlining Japan’s position in detail. Perhaps China’s foreign minister will respond in kind. A degree of reason from both sides would be preferable to muscle-flexing that could get easily out of hand.
If ever there was a case for sensible arbitration, this dispute would be high on the list — but neither party seems inclined to take the first step. If either party makes the first move towards arbitration, it might be construed as a sign of weakness, or worse, a loss of face.
Instead, there should be concerted, external pressure for mediation — something both sides might quietly welcome. This is something that Canada should press for, given its strong ties to Japan and our renewed engagement with China.
As for North Korea’s latest antics, the only power capable of exercising real restraint is China — but there is little likelihood of that happening any time soon. And if Park Geun-Hye is elected as South Korea’s first female president on Wednesday, her win will be fuelled in part by North Korea’s missile antics.
Regrettably, when it comes to East Asia’s tensions, hand-wringing rhetoric seems to be more in fashion than engaged diplomacy.