A dispute between Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea could ensnare the US
Japan calls them Senkaku, China calls them Diaoyu and Taiwan calls them Diaoyutai. For everyone else, these five uninhabited islands have simply become one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.
For years the biggest source of geopolitical friction in the Asia-Pacific region was Taiwan. But as tension across the Taiwan Strait has eased, it has risen to alarming levels in the East China Sea, where the disputed Senkaku islands are located.
In recent weeks, anti-Japanese riots have fanned out across China, with attacks on Japanese people, factories and property. A Chinese man in Xi’an was beaten within an inch of his life for driving a Toyota Corolla. Around the islands, Japan’s coastguard has fended off numerous boats from China and Taiwan. And in China there has been open, if unofficial, talk of war.
The proximate cause is the “nationalisation” this month of three of the islands by the Japanese government, which bought them from a private owner. Since the US “returned” the Senkaku to Japan in 1972 along with Okinawa, Japan has administered the islands. Still, it has left them undeveloped although the surrounding waters are believed to hold significant gas reserves. Japan says it bought them this month to prevent them falling under the influence of Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist governor of Tokyo who threatened to goad China by buying and developing them.
If Tokyo’s intention was to cool things down, it has not worked. China portrayed the nationalisation as blatant theft. John Delury, assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, says that from Beijing’s point of view, Japan disrupted the status quo by buying the islands. China suspects the hand of the US, whose military and diplomatic “pivot” to Asia is said to have emboldened Tokyo.
There are even more fundamental issues at play. “Underlying all of this is a geostrategic context for dominance of what Japan calls the ‘first island chain’ and China calls ‘the Near Sea’,” says Michael Green, a former Asia policy aide to US President George W. Bush, referring to a string of archipelagos from northern Borneo to the Kurile Islands north-east of Japan. About 90 per cent of Japanese and Chinese oil and gas is shipped through those waters, he says, “while dominance above the sea helps both sides map the topography beneath the sea for submarine warfare”. That makes the Senkaku “an enduring structural problem”, he says – one that goes beyond nationalist disturbances or political transitions in China and Japan.
June Teufel Dreyer, a China and Japan specialist at the University of Miami, says Chinese military journals refer to Senkaku as part of a chain hemming China in. “They say: ‘If we get these islands we can break out into the open Pacific’.”
Washington too could get dragged into the argument. If China were to invade the Senkaku, the US would have to decide whether to defend them under the US-Japan security treaty. If it did not, Japan could well conclude that Washington’s security guarantees are worthless.
The lesson Japanese conservatives have drawn from the tussle with China is that appeasing Beijing does not work. Shinzo Abe, a nationalist-minded former prime minister who wants Japan to become a “normal” country able to wage war if need be, has emerged as a plausible candidate to be Japan’s next leader.
The stakes are so high that most experts are betting the two sides will find a way of avoiding confrontation this time. But time is on Beijing’s side. The longer it waits, the bigger the power differential between China and Japan is likely to be.
The Senkaku problem, meanwhile, will remain, in Mr Delury’s phrase, “an open wound”.
Japan: Business (and a species) at risk
Nationalism and disputed borders make a dangerous mix – especially if you happen to be a rare kind of mole living exclusively on one of Asia’s most contested pieces of real estate, write Mure Dickie and Mitsuko Matsutani.
That is the predicament of the endangered Senkaku mole, whose very existence is threatened by the tensions between Japan, China and Taiwan over ownership of the remote and uninhabited archipelago for which it is named.
The main threat to the mole comes from the ecological devastation caused by goats released on the biggest of the islands in 1978 by rightwing activists in a misguided effort to assert Japanese sovereignty.
Tokyo’s efforts to avoid friction with Beijing by banning landings on the islands means that the goats have bred unchecked. Biologists cannot protect the mole, which has four fewer teeth than its Japanese cousins.
Nature is not the only casualty of rival claims over the Senkaku, rocky outcrops jutting out of the East China Sea. The dispute has plunged ties between Japan and China into their worst crisis in decades. Insurers say damage from the anti-Japanese riots across China is likely to total billions of yen. Lost custom hurts both Japanese businesses and their Chinese employees.
Japan is struggling to smooth ties and prevent escalation. It may already be too late for the Senkaku mole, none of which have been seen since the first was discovered in 1979. Yasushi Yokohata, a biologist and campaigner for the mole’s protection, says it may already be extinct. “We just don’t know.”
Taiwan: A fine line to tread
Taiwan has reminded China and Japan that it too claims the islands. A flotilla of Taiwanese fishing boats and their coastguard escort last week sailed nearby until the water cannons of Japanese patrol boats chased them away, writes Sarah Mishkin.
Taiwan, itself a contested island, faces a delicate dilemma in responding to the dispute. President Ma Ying-jeou needs to stand up for the country’s sovereignty but must also maintain strong relationships with China and Japan, its two largest trading partners.
“[Mr Ma] in no way gives up the Republic of China’s claim to the Diaoyutai, but he does place a lot of stress on showing restraint,” says Richard Bush, America’s former top envoy in Taiwan.
Under Mr Ma, relations with Beijing have warmed and many hope, or fear, he could open broader talks with the mainland. But cross-strait affairs remain controversial. China has called for a cross-strait front against the Japanese claims, but those calls have repeatedly been shot down by Taiwanese officials.
Few Taiwanese are as pro-Japanese as Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, who recently said the islands belonged to Japan. Mr Ma and his allies condemned those remarks but Mr Lee’s sympathies for Japan are not unheard of in Taiwan. Although tensions between Japan and Taiwan have risen, the two remain friendly.
Ketty Chen, a political scientist, says concerns are largely pragmatic. “The centre of the population, they don’t really feel nationalistic about Diaoyutai compared to the Chinese,” he says. “[Mr Ma] is treading pretty carefully not to get involved between China and Japan.”
China: The military rattles sabres
Some Chinese officers believe Beijing can simply seize the islands without meeting stern resistance, write Kathrin Hille and Zhao Tianqi.
“They don’t even have machine gun positions there, let alone coastal or air defence, how can they say they control the place?” writes Dai Xu, a military analyst, on his blog. “That place is not under anyone’s control. So if China wants to control it, we can do it now.”
The government avoids such martial language and emphasises that it remains in dialogue with Japan on the dispute.
But the official position is still bitter. Beijing has decried Japan’s move to nationalise some of the islands as trampling on the UN charter and an attempt to challenge international order.
Beijing says the islands have been an integral part of its territory since ancient times and bases its claim to them on the argument that they were first discovered, named and exploited by China. It says Japan grabbed the islands illegally in 1895 along with Taiwan.
For Beijing’s former wartime aggressor to control the islands is a huge challenge because the Communist party has built its legitimacy on nationalism and claims the credit for freeing China from colonisation.
Colonel Dai argues that Beijing should “eradicate the biggest source of chaos in our periphery”.
But other analysts say the risk of war is remote. Ni Lexiong, director of the Naval Strategy and Defence Policy Institute at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, says: “Neither China nor Japan has a motive for waging war – the two countries’ economic interest is far too closely intertwined.”
CIA reported in 1970s that China had no claim to Senkakus
A de-classified report from the United States’ CIA shows that around the time China began its formal claims to the currently disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the government agency investigated and concluded that Japan had the stronger and more convincing claim to ownership. Drafted in 1971, the CIA report stated that should a dispute of sovereignty arise, the burden to prove ownerships would fall on China. The CIA also points to the often suspected issue of oil in the area as being the real source of the dispute.
A related document mentions that if it hadn’t been for the discovery of potential oil reserves in the area in the late 60s, there would be no conflict between China, Japan, and Taiwan. The viewpoint is presented that the islands are uninhabited and unimportant (something most of the world must believe at this point), and only emerged from obscurity because of the potential for resources. If no commercial amount of oil is found, the territory would once more cease to have significance. I’m pretty sure they have no significance now to most of the people in China and Japan, all except for those spouting the “cheap liquor” of nationalism.
Further evidence noted in the 1971 report is that the Red Guard atlas, published in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, shows the borders of Communist China’s international administrative areas, with the ocean area where the Senkaku Islands are as being beyond their border. A second Chinese map also labels the Senkakus as part of the Ryukyus, a chain now recognized as Okinawa, and therefore belonging to Japan. While in the present day the U.S. is clearly working hard to remain neutral on issue, these reports show that they once felt that the islands belonged to Japan.
Genba, Morimoto stay in Cabinet; prolonged spat with China expected
By retaining his foreign and defense ministers, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda indicated he is willing to play a waiting game in Japan’s feud with China over the Senkaku Islands.
However, Beijing is showing signs of impatience and has made aggressive moves to exert its ownership claims over the islands in the East China Sea. Noda is also coming under domestic pressure to take action that could lead to a resolution of the long-standing dispute.
And the friction with China is not the only overseas issue that the Noda government must tackle.
The prime minister repeated that his administration will pursue diplomacy to end the flare-up over the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands.
“It is important to explore how to calm the relations with dialogue through various channels,” Noda said in a news conference on Oct. 1 to announce the lineup of his reshuffled Cabinet.
The key to this strategy will be Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba, who also sought dialogue with Beijing as tensions heightened last month.
But Noda also kept Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, an expert on security issues, in the Cabinet, showing that Japan will not back down and will continue to prepare for a possible emergency around the uninhabited islands.
After the Japanese government nationalized three of the five islands on Sept. 11, anti-Japan protests erupted across China.
Since then, Chinese government’s ships and Japan Coast Guard vessels have been engaged in tense cat-and-mouse games around the islands.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said the standoff will likely become long-running.
“The chance to ease tensions with China will come after the new Chinese leadership is established in the Communist Party convention in November,” an official at the prime minister’s office said.
But the prospects for a breakthrough are not bright. Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China’s next paramount leader, has described the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands as a “farce.”
Adding to China’s frustrations is the Japanese government’s refusal to acknowledge that a territorial dispute even exists over the Senkaku Islands, a stance that has also puzzled many in Japan.
Some Japanese business leaders, worried that a prolonged feud will damage the Japanese economy, are calling for a settlement through the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
“Clearly, China has very serious concerns about this issue,” Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), said on Sept. 27. “So it is hard to understand the Japanese government’s stance that no (territorial) problems exist.”
Noda, however, has said there is no need to take the issue to the ICJ.
“We want to maintain our basic stance that the (territorial) dispute does not exist. We have to do so,” Noda said at the Oct. 1 news conference.
He also noted, “China is not making any moves to appeal to the ICJ.”
Yet, the Noda government wants to use the ICJ to settle Japan’s dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan, leading to criticism that Tokyo is using a double standard.
Seoul has refused to offer its consent, which is required for the ICJ to take up the issue.
Complicating matters, Genba is putting importance on strengthening cooperative relations with South Korea to offset Japan’s deteriorating ties with China.
“As for Japan’s relations with South Korea, only the Takeshima issue is often taken up,” Genba told reporters on Oct. 1. “But Japan and South Korea are countries that strengthen cooperation in the fields of security and cultural exchanges.”
Another persistent problem for Japan in Asia is North Korea.
At the end of August, Tokyo and Pyongyang confirmed in a section chief-level meeting that the two countries would discuss their concerns, including the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, at a higher level.
But these talks appear unlikely in the near future because the Japanese government is busy trying to defuse tensions with China.
“If we try to juggle more balls, we will drop some of them,” a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.