Japan and China’s fight over islands

By Jonathan Power

At last someone has done something sensible in the increasingly bitter fight between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands – and that is China. China announced at the weekend that it is taking the issue to the UN. China has never done anything like this before.

It can only have been decided at the highest level by the new president himself, Xi Jinping, who in the months before he was promoted leader worked to get the various conflicting parts of the Chinese bureaucracy and the armed forces to pull in the same direction on the issue of maritime disputes.

China hasn’t gone as far as sending the matter to the International Court for Justice (World Court) where, if it were brave, it would. A few years ago Nigeria did this with its quarrel with neighbouring Cameroon over the oil-rich Bokassa peninsular. It lost and dutifully gave up Bokassa. China only has asked for a geological survey by independent experts to ascertain where China’s continental shelf ends. The commissioning UN organisation is probably The Law of the Sea’s disputes’ chamber.

The Law of the Sea came into effect in 1995 after decades of negotiation. It defines territorial waters and the exclusive economic zones which stretch to 200 miles. However when the continental shelf extends further the limit is 400 miles. Most nations of the world, including China and Japan, have ratified The Law of the Sea. The US has not although it abides by it.

There are 8 uninhabited islands with a total area of 7 square kilometres. There are rich fishing grounds and perhaps oil. In 1971 the US post-war occupation returned the islands to Japan and apparently China did not object. But, according to Meiji era documents unearthed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, in 1885 Japan acknowledged China as the owner.

Earlier this year tensions mounted when the governor of Tokyo decided to use public funds to buy the islands from the current Japanese owner.

In September China sent two patrol boats into the islands’ waters. In China anti-Japanese feeling has been running high. This year there have been ugly demonstrations and Japan is losing exports to China and seeing the important inflow of Chinese tourists fall significantly. In the last two weeks four Chinese warships and a plane have ventured near the islands.

The cocktails of the dispute are laced with China’s growing animosity towards Japan. Old memories of the war time atrocities of the occupying Japanese forces have returned to the fore. On Sunday Japan elected in a landslide the party of the incoming prime minister Shinzo Abe who tends to shun the truth about the war and thus provokes the Chinese. This is a disaster in the making.

There are two strains in Japanese political life. On one side are those who are ashamed of Japan’s role in the Second World War and are happy to live with Japan’s post-war constitution which outlaws the waging of war. On the other side are those who chaff under these constitutional limits on military practice and also support the writing of school textbooks to airbrush the nastier sides of Japan’s history.

China is not an aggressive power (Tibet and Taiwan excluded which it has long regarded, if wrongly, as part of China) and has been more put upon than most countries. Professor Odd Arne Westad of the London School of Economics writes in his new incisive book, “Restless Empire”, “The remarkable fact is that Chinese borders today are almost identical to those of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).”

The aggression has been one way. The British reduced a good number of the Chinese to drug addition with their imports of opium from India, enforcing its will by going to war in 1839. In the early first years of the 20th century China suffered from imperialist grabs for territory and markets by the British, the Americans, French, Russians and Germans.

In 1937 Japan attacked China, the first foreign attack on its territory since the Manchu conquest in 1630. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed, two million men were lost in battle and 12 million civilians died. In Nanjing 200,000 inhabitants were put to death. Rape and torture by the Japanese were widespread and “comfort women” abused by the military. Without Soviet help China would have been defeated, although US aid, both economic and military, was very useful.

Japan has never fully apologised for the war. Some schoolbooks and parts of the media emphasise that Japan was a victim of war not a perpetrator. (Austria, the birthplace of Hitler, does this too.) War criminals are still worshipped at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. Shinzo Abe has paid his respects there a number of times and only a few years ago Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Kouizumi, made trips to the shrine.

Japan should watch its step on the islands’ dispute. History is not on its side.

© 2012 Jonathan Power

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Subscribe to
TFF PressInfo
and Newsletter