Between a rock and a hard place: The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute

By Babak Moussavi

Probably not a place to build your holiday home.

Probably not a place to build your holiday home.

North Korea’s autarkic regime is sabre-rattling once again, with many observers genuinely worried about an outbreak of fighting. But while the tension in the Korean peninsular continues, another dispute has been rumbling, which is equally likely to build up to a dangerous clash in the near future. While nobody really knows what exactly Kim Jong-Un’s latest bout of frothing anger is all about, the other long-brewing conflict, between regional superpowers, China and Japan, is over some small, uninhabited rocks in the sea.

International Crisis Group’s recent report on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is worth reading. Based on a large number of interviews with prominent and relevant individuals from both Japan and China, the ICG report, entitled Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks, provides the context for this dispute, and explains why tension that suddenly increased late last year has not subsided. It is a worrying tale, and the report does not rule out the possibility that violence could break out – out of the blue, as it were. This article briefly summarises the ICG report.

On the Rocks

The Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain is considered by both countries to have strategic and possibly economic value. China sees them as crucial for its access to the Pacific, whereas Japan worries that China’s control of them could give it a monitoring platform of its activities in Okinawa. It is also believed that the islands may have large amounts of hydrocarbon deposits in their waters, though as the dispute has been simmering for so many years, no real exploration has occurred. That part, therefore, is based on conjecture – for now they remain rocks in the sea.

Japan has administered the islands since 1895 when it annexed them, claiming they were terra nullius. The recent status quo therefore has seen Japan’s coastguard patrolling the islands, preventing Chinese ships from venturing into the waters around them. China, however, claims the islands were annexed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and handed to Japan in Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), but should now be returned as after WW2 Japan was told to return the territories it had seized during war. Unfortunately, the issue looks unlikely to be referred to the International Court of Justice, as would seem appropriate, as Japan flatly denies that a dispute even exists. China meanwhile “has no faith in the ICJ’s fairness”. The ICG wisely avoids taking sides on the issue.

The status quo is no longer tenable though, meaning the dispute may well be coming to a head. In September last year, Japan nationalised the islands to prevent Tokyo’s nationalist governor at the time, Shintaro Ishihara, from purchasing the islands from its private owners and building on them. Japanese officials claim to have informed their Chinese counterparts of the necessity and wisdom of this move, but China responded angrily, which shocked Japan’s government. Japan believed it was simply transferring ownership “from the left hand to the right”, but China felt that the action was significant politically, and “violated the basic agreement that both countries shelve the dispute and kick it into the long grass”. China also distrusted Japan for its timing of the action, viewing it as an attempt to embarrass the government in the middle of its handover of power. The leaders at the time, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (both of whom have now been replaced), had met and discussed the issue, but evidently misunderstood each other’s position. China felt it lost face; Japan now feels that if it were to back down, it would in turn lose face. Meanwhile, the conflict is escalating.

China responded to the nationalisation with a “combination of punches” that aimed to shift the status quo from Japanese control of the islands to a system of “overlapping administration”. A number of punitive measures were taken, from cancelled tourist trips, consumer boycotts, extended custom inspections, violent anti-Japan protests, and the cancellation of official meetings. On the ground (or rather, in the sea) China attempted to enact a policy of “reactive assertiveness”, which it has used to great effect in its similar territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam. By pushing back hard in the face of a sudden clash, it attempts to change the status quo in its favour. Thus, China now sends ships to regularly patrol the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and has claimed that the islands are part of its non-negotiable “core interests”.

The report claims that many Chinese officials and scholars who were interviewed believed that the Japanese security alliance with the US was the biggest obstacle preventing China from simply taking the islands by force. As China rises, many in the country have begun to see Japan as a second-rate power, despite its size as the third-largest global economy and much higher GDP per capita ($45,903, against China’s $5,445). They do not give the nuances of Japan’s internal politics much credit for its actions therefore – especially its decision to nationalise the islands. Believing the US shadow to be the main factor, China interpreted the decision as a key part of a new strategy to contain China’s rise.


Competing claims

Such mistrust alone is ominous. When combined with various institutional failings, it becomes very dangerous. The ICG report makes clear that crisis mitigation strategies have largely broken down, and many channels of communication that were necessary for clearing up past misunderstandings have been closed. The Chinese leadership has for many years stoked the memory of WW2, including through its textbooks, which has served to make the people more nationalistic and anti-Japanese than would be optimal for shrewd policy-making. It is therefore more difficult for the Chinese government now to adopt a more moderate and conciliatory tone. Moreover, in Japan, the ‘China School’ of diplomats in the foreign ministry have been gradually sidelined and replaced with non-China specialists, which has dented mutual understanding between the two countries’ diplomats. At the same time, the prudent Chinese foreign ministry has been gradually weakened in relation to other, more aggressive departments.

In theory, one could think of further substantial measures that might enhance trust and cooperation. Perhaps both countries could agree to joint fishing rights around the islands for instance, or even collaborate on exploration for resources, which would be mutually beneficial economically. Or, who knows, perhaps they could even agree to leave the islands as a marine reserve, as the Economist would like? Unfortunately, with terrible communication in this high-level game of brinkmanship, such positive outcomes are unlikely to happen soon. Improving communication and rebuilding constructive institutional ties are therefore of paramount importance.

All too frequent

This all paints a depressing picture. War between these two countries, as seemed perilously close at one stage, would be madness, and would certainly benefit nobody. To make matters worse, the seas in the region are littered with other disputes: Japan and South Korea argue over the Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks (which are administered by South Korea), and China, as mentioned above, has a number of disputes in the South China Sea. Taiwan also claims the Senkaku/Diaoyu as its own. Without international arbitration, will these countries simply muddle through, in the hope that peace will be preserved? Is such a fragile status quo that creates lingering mistrust between strong trading partners really in the people’s interest?

The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute may look niche and confusing for outsiders while it remains ‘peaceful’, but seemingly petty territorial disputes are regular features of global politics. In the UK, one need only think about the Falkland Islands for a stark similarity. While the UK claims no dispute even exists, no international arbitration can take place, and Argentina’s government will keep up the possibly hypocritical rhetoric about ‘colonialism’. Argentina’s claims seem weaker than China’s though, because there are actually people living in the Falklands who would like to remain British, whereas nobody inhabits the Senkaku/Diaoyu. Nevertheless, pretending a source of tension does not exist is an ostrich’s approach, not that of a strategic thinker.

It may be too much to hope, but perhaps a true statesman involved in any of these disputes would be one who can think beyond ‘losing face’ or ‘looking powerful’ and would be willing to sit down amicably with his counterpart in order to seek areas of agreement and compromise. Unfortunately, populism will always be more attractive in the short-term. Which perhaps explains why the ownership of small rocks in the sea assumes such critical importance.


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