Both countries claim that, historically, the disputed islands are rightfully theirs. The kicker in all this is that the winner of the proceeds will get access to an estimated 100 billion barrels of oil and rich fishing grounds
China is in the news once again, for rowdy anti-Japanese protests raging in as many as 50 Chinese cities. Japanese goods, factories and nationals are practically under siege, so much so that the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has requested China to protect its “nationals, companies and diplomats from attack”. The protests have emanated from contending territorial claims in the East China Sea. In the past, China has staked a claim from Tibet to Taiwan to the entire South China Sea, which naturally makes one wonder if there is any merit to these claims—or whether they are just a grab for everything available. Is China crying wolf, or do its claims have a basis?
In what has been an eventful week, the Japanese government bought three (of the five) Senkaku Islands. Senkaku to the Japanese/Diaoyu to the Chinese—these islands lie north-east of Taiwan and west of Okinawa, with a total land area of not more than 3 square miles. The islands are hotly disputed with China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC) staking a claim, but Japan sealed the deal paying a whopping 2.05 billion yen, ($30 million) to the private Japanese owner. China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, China Daily, took an open pot-shot at Japan saying, “A thief is never a legitimate owner of stolen property,” which was cacophony to the Dalai Lama’s and, seemingly, Japan’s ears.
In what closely mirrors China’s aggressive foray in the South China Sea, Japan is stirring up a storm in the East China waters. China claims that the islands were “stolen” in the first place from China. Japan steamed ahead despite the threat of China’s marine surveillance ships hovering in the waters, and despite a call for prudence, hand-delivered at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vladivostok by China’s outgoing President Hu Jintao to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. In effect, Japan delivered a neat penny to China’s thoughts and actions.
It is believed (and the Japanese government said as much to China) that Japan’s decision was motivated by the right-wing Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s “proactive steps to jump start purchase negotiations with the owners” and state control was seen as the best way to “end current instability connected with private ownership”. Japan says that the city government of Ishigaki, Okinawa prefecture, has jurisdiction over the islands.
Quite like Nehru’s famous words on India’s Aksai Chin—“not a blade of grass grows there”—the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have not a single human being. These five islets and three rock formations are land “you can’t even find on most maps”. But contending claims of the three parties—China, Taiwan and Japan—are embedded in history, a virulent nationalism, and to top it all, the economics of the seas. Moreover, the fallout of the dispute may set (an unworthy) precedent for other unresolved claims (such as Japan-Korea over Takeshima/Tokdo, which are known in English as the Liancourt Rocks dispute; China-Vietnam claims in Spratlys) resting in the seas.
Their significance accrues from, as an observer has noted, the huge area of continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—“an estimated 71,000 square kilometres … that would convey rights to 100 billion barrels of oil and rich fishing grounds.” The sea-lanes and strategic geopolitical location are added benefits, the latter which Daily Yomiuri makes no bones about: “If the military’s new osprey aircraft is stationed in Okinawa prefecture, the mobility of US Marines will be improved, raising hopes of keeping China in check.”
But it’s not quite checkmate, yet. China’s claims are seeded in ancient history. According to associate professor at San Francisco State University, Jean-Marc F Blanchard, the Chinese trace their claim to 1372 when the islands were discovered, and consequently named in 1403. Travel records of Ming and Qing courts, Chinese maps and scholarly works of both Japanese and Chinese scholars attest to this. Thus the Chinese claim thievery, saying that Japan “stole” these islands. According to China, the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), which ended the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, ceded Taiwan, Pescadores and Senkaku/Diaoyu to Japan. Now China wants it back.
However, the Japanese dismiss this version. They contend that Senkaku/Diaoyu was discovered by Japan in 1884. Then Senkaku/Diaoyu showed no traces of Chinese control, nor did China protest any activity by the Japanese on the islands. It was made a part of Okinawa in 1895 and markers erected. Okinawa was carved from the Ryukuku Islands (once an independent sovereign kingdom incorporated into Japan as Ryuku-han in 1872). The Japanese contend that Senkaku/Diaoyu was never “transferred to Japan via Treaty of Shimonoseki” as the Chinese claim.
Seemingly, both versions have some validity. Professor Kimie Hara of the University of Waterloo (Canada) provides a more nuanced understanding, not stark black-and-white, as either party contend. Hara traces the dispute to the complex post-war San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951) that came to dictate Japan in the post-war period. Hara says that simply understood, the heart of the dispute is whether Senkaku/Diaoyu is part of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture or whether it should have been renounced under the San Francisco Peace Treaty as part of Taiwan.
Hara notes that Senkaku (and Okinawa) were placed under US control under Article 3 of the peace treaty. The US relinquished its administrative rights over Senkaku in 1972, but despite “reversion” remained stationed in Okinawa. Japan’s residual sovereignty over Senkaku/Diaoyu was recognised by successive Presidents—Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. But Nixon made a departure.
Nixon famously charted “ping-pong” diplomacy (beginning with the exchange of ping pong teams between China and America in 1972, aimed at normalisation of relations). As Sino-American relations began to thaw, Nixon chose to adopt “no position on sovereignty”. US presence continued in Okinawa, with Nixon playing both sides under “defence of Japan” and “defence from Japan”.
China and Japan normalised relations in 1972. But there have been notable flashpoints such as in 1978, the year the Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed between the two countries. Matters reached a head when 80 Chinese fishing boats suddenly approached the islands. According to Daniel Trietak, associate professor at York University (Canada), Japan “unequivocally established control over the islands” despite the bout of China’s “fish-boat diplomacy”.
Thereafter, the dispute began to pan out with “emergent resource nationalism” playing a card. Despite several flashpoints, much water has flowed under the bridge. In the 40 years of normalisation of relations, Sino-Japanese relations have come to be crafted on the bedrock of economics. Today, China is the single-largest importer of Japanese goods, accounting for 20% of Japan’s total exports, up from 7.7% a decade earlier. Japan accounts for 8% of China’s exports and is China’s fourth-largest trading partner (after the US, EU and ASEAN).
Despite the bridges that have been built, both have infused the current Senkaku/Dioyu dispute with national pride. China’s Premier Wen Jiabao’s statement that China will not budge “half an inch in sovereignty and territorial claims” is being carefully read; while Japan Times (the English daily) has registered that “China lets (its own) press splash Japan protests” implying that China is making this bigger than it is.
In effect, both China’s and Japan’s actions are driven by a combination of factors. Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution written by America (in 1946) is hovering on its head; moreover, Japan’s gloss as Asia’s reigning queen is precocious and strained. Thus, a little nationalism seems a calculated and welcome diversion.
On the other hand, China sits uneasily on the cusp of what appear to be burgeoning domestic challenges—economic slowdown, increasing unemployment and an uneasy, rocky transition of power to the fifth generation. The disappearance of President-in-waiting Xi Jinping from the public eye since September 1 including a no-show in a scheduled meeting with US secretary of state Hilary Clinton had fuelled all sorts of unsavoury rumours. Xi’s appearance at Beijing University last weekend has at least stopped those rumours—and perhaps focused on the dispute, embellished with a strong tone of nationalism. September 18 is the anniversary of the 1931 Manchurian Incident (when Japan invaded China) which could further be a rallying point in China.
There are too many ingredients brewing in the cauldron—this time around, merits of the case and crying wolf aside, both are riding the tiger of nationalism and probably seeking to deflect attention from their respective Pandora’s boxes.
The author is a Singapore-based sinologist, currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal