Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Islands of Nationalism

BEIJING – If the recent tension between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea is any indication, relations between the world’s second and third largest economies will not be smooth for some time to come, despite ever-increasing bilateral trade and investment. That is because both countries’ latest rush to affirm their sovereignty over the islands – called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese – reflects a sense of insecurity and a perception that the other side is taking an aggressive stand, which means that the issue is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.

On the Japanese side, there is growing anxiety over China’s increasing economic and military prowess, such that some nationalists would like to “settle” the matter in Japan’s favor as soon as possible. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s recent call for Japan’s government to “purchase” the islands from “private” Japanese owners can be explained in this context.

On the Chinese side, the maritime quarrels with Japan – and with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the South China Sea – have reignited a national debate about whether China’s foreign policy is too weak in terms of asserting the country’s interests. America’s “pivot” to Asia, viewed by many Chinese as an effort by the United States to reassert itself in Asia by supporting other Asian states in “containing” China’s rise, has fueled a siege mentality among Chinese nationalists. Their response is to call for tough military action in the South China Sea, and to stage symbolic landings on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, such as those staged by Hong Kong activists on August 15.

Japan arrested the activists, but deported them soon after, thus avoiding a prolonged confrontation with China. The Japanese authorities clearly learned a lesson from their detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain two years ago, when they eventually acceded to Chinese pressure – which included a range of harsh, and escalating, political and economic measures– to release him.

Soon after the Hong Kong activists' protest landing on the disputed islands, Japanese citizens, including local assembly members, staged their own landing there. Moreover, the Japanese government, while rejecting a further appeal from Ishihara to provide land on the isles to the Tokyo municipality, is, however, raising money to purchase some of the islands from their supposedly bankrupt Japanese owner.

Such mixed signals have further inflamed nationalist sentiments in China, and anti-Japanese demonstrations have broken out in many Chinese cities, including an attack on the Japanese ambassador’s official vehicle. Both sides urgently need to cool off, especially in order to contain their extremist elements and prevent them from taking over the issue and setting the policy agenda.

In the short term, China’s government should discourage further anti-Japanese demonstrations. Well-educated Chinese should understand that destroying Japanese cars (which are made in China) and similar behavior are not rational ways to express an opinion about a territorial dispute with Japan. And China’s government should work with the Hong Kong authorities to prevent another attempt by Chinese activists to land on Senkaku/Diaoyu again in October.

For its part, Japan should suspend its plan to buy the islands, an effort that is certain to make matters worse if it goes ahead. The status quo is that the Chinese government has not challenged Japan’s de facto control of the islands, so further action to force China’s hand would be extremely unwise.

In the medium term, the two governments should work out a formula for coping with scenarios that now play out regularly. A crisis-management team, composed of representatives of both countries’ foreign ministries, coast guards, and militaries, should not only meet regularly, but should also consult each other in emergency situations, thereby minimizing the risk that matters get out of control.

Moreover, such a formula should bar provocative actions by either side, including military exercises, such as those staged recently by China and, jointly, by the US and Japan. It should also contain a standard procedure for managing the aftermath when behavior by citizens of either country forces the two governments into unexpected situations.

In the long run, the best outcome is a peaceful resolution to the sovereignty issue, or, barring that, a compromise that satisfies both sides’ core interests. Joint development of the area’s resources, which both countries need, should be returned to the bilateral agenda.

China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping famously proposed that, for the sake of better Sino-Japanese relations, the two countries should shelve the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute for future generations to resolve. That wisdom remains the best advice to date, especially given that the consequences of a worsening bilateral relationship would extend far beyond China and Japan.

Read more from our "Japan's Turning Point" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    One problem with history is that every historical narrative has a base-line, or a starting point, to which not all the parties may willingly adhere. The Japanese position, articulated by senior establishment figures, is that these islands have been under Japanese control since 1985 until the Americans took charge in 1945 and then handed back to Tokyo along with Okinawa in 1972. This is factually accurate.

    The point about 1895 is that in that year Japan conclusively won the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War and the islands were part of the spoils of its famous victory. So, post-war occupation of territory which had hitherto belonged to the vanquished, should, in this view, be a legitimate basis of ownership. Beijing does not accept that argument and wishes to push the historical base-line to before the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War when the islands were controlled by the Chinese.

    Most actors, analysts and commentators from outside China appear to be sympathetic to the Japanese view. In short, they appear to suggest without saying so in as many words that Japan's acquisition by war of Chinese territory in 1895 should be accepted as the valid basis of its current claims.

    If this principle is accepted, then military occupation of foreign lands would, at least theoretically, become a legitimate path to territorial acquisition. That would at the very least require a major revision of the Charter of the United Nations to enable the legitimation of military conquest. And not just that. Consider all the historical claims and complaints churning in myriad nationalist narratives around the world!

    Tricky stuff!

      CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      The disputed isles were probably either everyone's isles or terra nullis before1985 from the standpoint of modern international law. Japan proclaimed the ownership a few months before the Sino-Japanese Treaty was singnedwith no protest from China and technically not the spoil of the war.

      Neither Taiwan or China said that the isles were theirs until ECAFE announced billions of barrels of oil lay under the sea. Zhou Enlai said in Beijing in July, 1972, to the chairman of a Japanese political party that Chinese historians came to know about the oil so started insisting on Chinese ownership.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    About a week ago the Japanese Government announced all of a sudden that it had reached an agreement to buy the isles with the owner. The owner met Govenor Ishihara and offered an apology today (September 8). Tokyo Prefecture had collected donations of about eighteen million three hundred thousand dollars.

  3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    It is not the Japanese Government but the Tokyo Prefecture Govenment that is negotiating the purchase of the isles with the supposedly bankrupt owner.

    It is not Japan but Tokyo that is raising money for it.

    The isles are rented to the Japanese Government now, the contract for which, as I understand it, is to expire next March. Governor Ishihara is not asking the Japanese Government to provide land on them. What Ishihara is asking is for the Japanese Government to permit Tokyo municipal officials to land for inspection. (The Government declined the request of Tokyo a few days ago.)

      CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      I wonder if Prof. Jiang could read my comment about the isles to www.yaleglobal.yale.edu/Can China Afford To Confront The World?-Part One and Michi Moriyama's three comments dated October 14 and 15 to www.nytimes. com./Look Out For The Diaoyu Islands/Nikolas Kristoff.

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