25 September 2012

Isle Be Back – Special National Day Double Issue 還我河山 – 國慶雙刊

If the Chinese activists who landed on Diaoyu Islands (釣魚台島) last month sound a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger, that’s because they have stolen the Terminator’s famous one-liner. The half-dozen men who dodged the Japanese Coast Guard and planted Chinese and Taiwanese flags on one of the disputed islands vowed to be back, over and over again. Their fearless (some say reckless) act – the most successful landing by Chinese civilians in 16 years – have set off a new wave of territorial disputes between the world’s second and third largest economies. 

Drama in the East China Sea 

The set of uninhabited isles, known in Japan as the Senkaku (尖閣諸島), have little known economic or strategic importance to either side. Claims that the seafloor contains rich mineral and oil deposits remain unconfirmed. The five rocks and three reefs add up to an area of 7 square kilometers, about the size of Causeway Bay. To put things in perspective, China signed a series of treaties with Russia between 1858 and 1883 and gave away over 1,600,000 square kilometers of land in the northeastern region, an area three times the size of France and five times the size of Japan. It is therefore clear from the get-go that the disputes are not about resources or real estate. They are about something far more deep-rooted and toxic. China and Japan have so many unsettled scores in their tortured history that even a few worthless rocks are enough to spark a cold war-style standoff and threaten the most important bilateral trading relationship in Asia.

Neither country is interested in war. But for fear of appearing soft at home, both governments refuse to talk and have stepped up their rhetoric instead. The Japanese have gone so far as to “nationalize” the disputed islands by purchasing them from their supposed private owners. That move, which Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (野田佳彦) claimed would prevent the islands from falling into the hands of right-wing extremists, has plunged China-Japan relations to their lowest point since the two countries normalized diplomatic ties in the 1970s. Anti-Japan protests have broken out in over 80 cities across China. In Shenzhen, for instance, angry mobs besieged Japanese department stores and attacked Japanese-made vehicles. Even sushi restaurants owned by local Chinese were not spared. The Japanese responded in kind: less violent demonstrations against “Chinese imperialism” are being held in major cities.

Every territorial dispute is a he-says-she-says proposition. Everyone has an opinion but few bother with the facts. Following the Diaoyu conflict is a lot like watching China and Japan compete in the Olympic gymnastics: we suddenly become armchair athletes ready to dispense judgment based on a little bit of knowledge and plenty of emotion. Here in Hong Kong, we instinctively throw our support behind our Motherland. It is the patriotic thing to do. As we cheer on our seafaring activists and wonder whether to cancel our Tokyo vacations, it helps to take a step back and look at the controversy from different perspectives.

Noda underestimates China's reaction to his island purchase

Japan’s Perspective

“If we let them have the Senkaku, they’ll come after Okinawa next.”
          – Hissho Yanai (矢内筆勝), leader of the Association to Protect Our Children’s Future from Chinese Intimidation

Between 1894 and 1895, China suffered a series of humiliating military defeats in the First Sino-Japanese War (甲午戰爭). Under the Treaty of Maguan (馬關條約), China ceded Taiwan and the neighboring Pescadores (澎湖列島) to Japan. The few barren rocks of Diaoyu were neither discussed nor written into the treaty. After that, Japan began exercising control over the general area, including the Diaoyu that they had renamed the Senkaku. Following its surrender in World War II in 1945, Japan returned Taiwan to China but handed the Senkaku along with the nearby Ryukyu Islands (琉球群島) to the Americans. It wasn’t until 1971 when the United States reverted “ownership” of both the Ryukyu and the Senkaku Islands to Japan pursuant to the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Since then, Japan has been arguing that the Senkaku were returned to them in accordance with an internationally recognized treaty. On that account, they must be the rightful owner.

After the Ryukyu Reversion in 1971, Japan continued to administer the Senkaku and patrol the surrounding waters. In recent decades, Chinese activists who have sailed to the area have been routinely intercepted by the Japanese Coast Guard. By contrast, attempts by Japanese nationalists to land on the islands have not been met by any Chinese force. The uneven control exercised by the two countries further bolsters Japan’s claim that it has de facto ownership of the area. It gives Japan the upper hand on the international stage, and in particular, the International Court of Justice in the Hague that adjudicates territorial disputes. Under the principle of uti possidetis (Latin for “as you possess”), control and occupation are critical considerations in determining which country has a better claim. Much to China’s dismay, the abundance of historical records supporting its pre-1895 ownership holds little sway with the ICJ.

Cession of Taiwan under the Treaty of Maguan

In the eyes of America and much of the West, Japan is a pacifist country under the ever-growing threat of China’s territorial ambition. When in doubt, the international community always sides with a modern capitalist democracy over a single-party Communist regime. Nomenclature offers yet another glimpse of the global slant toward Japan. Every member of the Western press from The New York Times to The Economist refers to the disputed islands as “Senkaku” instead of “Diaoyu,” a semantic bias tantamount to a presumption of ownership. The presumption in the West allows Japan to shrug off historical records and other inconvenient truths. In fact, Japan has never acknowledged that a dispute over the Senkaku even exists.

In the last two decades, China’s economic ascent has coincided with Japan’s gradual decline. The so-called “Lost Generation” in Japan has experienced stubborn deflation, unemployment and a deteriorating standard of living. To be sure, petty bickering that endangers a US$350 billion bilateral relationship is the last thing that the troubled nation needs. If China-Japan relations continue to worsen, Beijing will likely suspend the export of rare earths (metals used to make electronic components) to Japan, just as it did in 2010, with the potential to cripple Japan’s already struggling industries. But trade sanctions can be a double-edged sword. They can intimidate an adversary, but they can also fuel anti-China sentiment and give radical nationalists more ammunition to stoke public fears. After all, Japan’s hasty decision earlier this month to nationalize the Senkaku was spurred by a right-wing politician who threatened to purchase the islands himself. It is remarkable that one man’s radical views were able to drown out the moderate majority and dictate the country’s national agenda. It lays bare the feebleness of Noda’s government.

Japanese nationalists spreading fears

China’s Perspective

“Diaoyu Islands have been China's inherent territory since ancient times.”
          – Qin Gang (秦剛), spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry

Long before European powers began colonizing the world in the 15th Century, China had been annexing neighboring territories and expanding its imperial reach. A plethora of historical records – those yellowed manuscripts and dusty maps we have all seen on television – provide irrefutable evidence that it was Chinese explorers who first discovered the Diaoyu and charted them on their maps. The earliest written record of the islands dates back to 1403.

Its discoverer’s title notwithstanding, China has done close to nothing in the past century to assert its sovereignty over the Diaoyu. But its inaction is understandable. The history of modern China has been a bloody chronicle of foreign invasions, civil wars and natural as well as man-made disasters. Since the mid-19th Century and especially after the Second Sino-Japanese War (抗日戰爭; 1937 - 1945), the country simply had been too weak to bother with a few uninhabited rocks.

A Qing Dynasty map showing the Diaoyu under Chinese rule

Indeed, China missed out on several golden opportunities to take back the islands. During the Cairo Conference in 1943, the United States offered Chiang Kai-shek, then President of the Republic of China, all of the Ryukyu Islands (including Okinawa) along with the Diaoyu, once the Allies defeated Japan. But Chiang turned down the offer partly because he was just happy to get Taiwan and Manchuria back, and partly because he lacked the military resources to administer the islands while fighting a brutal civil war against the Communists back home. The Diaoyu disputes resurfaced in 1970s when the U.S. ended its occupation of Okinawa and Japan was ready to redraw territorial lines in the East China Sea. In 1978, while China was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping wanted to postpone negotiation to a better time. He famously told Japanese negotiators that his generation was not “wise enough” to deal with the Diaoyu. 

Generalissimo Chiang (left) with FDR and Winston Churchill

40 years later, China is a very different country. While Deng’s next generation are not necessarily wiser, they are certainly wealthier. With double-digit GDP growth and trillion-dollar trade surpluses, Chinese citizens now demand and command respect. They are eager to flex their muscles on the world stage and settle old scores. Nationalism is on the rise and the anti-Japan protests we saw on the evening news these past weeks are only a start. Since this round of territorial disputes erupted, netizens in China have been trading creative ideas on how to put Japan in its place. One state-run newspaper in Beijing even recommended that a nuclear bomb be dropped on the enemy. Hasta la vista, baby.

For now, Beijing is happy to play along. After all, a little patriotism goes a long way in an autocracy, as long as protestors continue to direct their anger at Japan instead of their own country. The trouble is that once you have angry mobs throwing rocks and burning flags on the streets, there is very little to stop them from vocalizing their other complaints. As collective frustrations over social injustice and widespread corruption boil over, it is only a matter of time until anti-Japan demonstrations turn into an all-out Jasmine Revolution. That’s what is keeping government officials up at night. A few barren rocks are not. 

Protestors in Shenzhen breaching police barricades

America’s Perspective

“The U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies must work with China to ensure that its economic and military rise does not become a negative force.”
          – Condoleeza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State

When U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Beijing last week, he reiterated that America will not take sides on the Diaoyu disputes. But Panetta was also quick to remind China that the United States has an obligation to defend Japan and that obligation extends to the Senkaku Islands. It doesn’t take a seasoned diplomat to figure out that these two statements are inherently contradictory, or that America has never been, and will never be, neutral when it comes to China-Japan relations. Many Chinese historians argue that the Nixon administration was responsible for creating the disputes in the first place. The Americans were the ones who callously handed the Diaoyu to Japan as part of the Ryukyu Reversion, when the islands should have been returned to China along with Taiwan in 1945. Some Chinese commentators go even further and suggest that it was the U.S. that spread rumors about lucrative oil reserves in the Diaoyu seafloor in order to rile up the two disputing countries. This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

Indeed, no country has more to gain from soured China-Japan relations than the United States. On the one hand, a standoff between two Asian giants would allow Washington to test China’s bottom line in regional conflicts. China has been notoriously secretive about its military agenda, and the Pentagon is eager to find out how prepared the communist state is to use force and what its actual combat capabilities are. On the other hand, a China-Japan conflict strengthens America’s other alliances in East Asia, aiding its larger containment strategy toward Beijing. Predictably, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have all jumped on the get-off-my-property bandwagon against China following the recent Diaoyu flare-up. The latest turn of events in the East China Sea has been the biggest diplomatic bonanza for the U.S. since Nixon visited China.

While a bit of tension in Asia may work to America’s advantage, too much of it would not be in anyone’s interest. In the highly improbable event that China and Japan go to war, the United States is technically obligated under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty of 1951 to defend Japan. But that will never happen. America is not about to engage in a nuclear showdown with China over a few craggy rocks. On the other hand, not honoring the security treaty would destroy a bedrock of the America-Japan relations. A third Sino-Japanese War would put America between a rock and a hard place. So while Uncle Sam is fanning the fire, he is also making sure he doesn’t get his hands burned. 

America's containment strategy

*                   *                   *

The fishing season in the East China Sea has just began. Thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese fishing boats are making their way to the Diaoyu waters. While most of them are there to fish, a daring few will attempt a landing on the disputed islands to assert Chinese sovereignty. When they do, they will find themselves in the eye of a perfect storm. With the U.S. presidential election, China’s change in leadership and the Japanese general election all scheduled to be held within the next nine months, the three countries – the largest economies of the world – will do everything they can to please their constituencies and not rock any political boat. That means Washington will continue its tough stance toward China, Noda’s government will maintain its strong rhetoric over the Diaoyu and Beijing will respond in kind in order to demonstrate its total control over a leadership transition marred by unwelcome hiccups like the Bo Xilai (薄熙来) scandal. When the busy political season comes to an end, so too will the territorial disputes. Until then, expect more talk of war and heavier traffic around the isles.

Transition of power has been anything but smooth


This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com


  1. Hurray !!!!

    I didn't receive any notice from your blog / group that a new article has been posted and I nearly missed this. Thank goodness I checked. This issue has been on my mind for days, comments to come once I devour the article !


  2. You seem to start from the premise that Chinese expansion is and has always been a good thing. And that it is not reasonable for the West to honour its treaties, or to respect international law. What a pity; I was hoping to read a balanced account.


  3. Jason, my only problem is your reference at the beginning to "Taiwanese flags". It should be noted that this flag is the flag of the Republic of China, and many on Taiwan do not think of it as a "Taiwanese" flag. In fact, I would say that large numbers of Taiwanese people could really care less about the Diao Yu issue -- they see it as an issue between China and Japan.

  4. Perhaps that's why I omitted "Taiwan's Perspective" from my analysis! :-)


  5. I really loved reading your article, Jason. Your idea to put different perspectives on the table really contributes to the understanding of the political issues by faraway Europeans like me.
    I admit not having fully understood Taiwan's perspective - if any - but the overall article was just brilliant!


  6. Jason, one clarification. According to japan's ministry of foreign affairs, they have incorporated senkaku islands to Japan on 14 Jan 1895 after surveying the islands for 10years since 1885 and confirmed that they are uninhibited and no trace of having been under the control of China (you can find more details in their website). Sino-Japan war ended in March/April 1895. Japan's claim isn't to do with Sino Japan war...


  7. Hi Daisuke,

    Thank you for your comment! I am grateful for a Japanese viewpoint!

    Here's a rebuttal to the argument made by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    One Taiwanese legal scholar and historian wrote to The New York Times earlier this month:

    "[T]he Japanese government asserts, 'From 1885 on, our government conducted on-site surveys time and again, which confirmed that the islands were uninhabited and there were no signs of control by the Qing Empire.'

    "My research oMy research of over 40 official Meiji period documents unearthed from the Japanese National Archives, Diplomatic Records Office, and National Institute for Defense Studies Library clearly demonstrates that the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

    "Following the first on-site survey, in 1885, the Japanese foreign minister wrote, 'Chinese newspapers have been reporting rumors of our intention of occupying islands belonging to China located next to Taiwan.… At this time, if we were to publicly place national markers, this must necessarily invite China’s suspicion.…'

    "In November 1885, the Okinawa governor confirmed 'since this matter is not unrelated to China, if problems do arise I would be in grave repentance for my responsibility.'

    “'Surveys of the islands are incomplete' wrote the new Okinawa governor in January of 1892. He requested that a naval ship Kaimon be sent to survey the islands, but ultimately a combination of miscommunication and bad weather made it impossible for the survey to take place."

    The rest of the article is available at http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/the-inconvenient-truth-behind-the-diaoyusenkaku-islands/http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/the-inconvenient-truth-behind-the-diaoyusenkaku-islands/http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/the-inconvenient-truth-behind-the-diaoyusenkaku-islands/


  8. A lot like my SE Asian politics class, where we had to look at the situation from differing perspectives/motives. It made it hard to take sides. Thanks for the breakdown.


  9. This is very interesting. I haven't seen this in Japanese media yet. That is not to say Japanese media is all very right wing, if anything they are rather left wing, in some cases extreme left. I guess left wing Japanese newpapers haven't done their homework properly. Anway I'd love to see these historical evidence from both sides examined and verified in international court and the court comes to a peaceful ruling soon, no matter who ends up owning these islands.


  10. Daisuke,

    I doubt that the disputes will ever end up in court. The stakes are too high -- imagine what would happen at home for the losing side...


  11. I first thought both sides are fighting for the islands from a strategic / security point of view, but from your introduction, that seems hardly the case. I totally agree with you that the fight over the islands, or indeed anything, economic rivalry or whatever, between the Chinese and the Japanese, is much much more deep-rooted. It has been so ever since the Japanese invasion of China during WWII, this is just another remnant of that hostility. I am lucky in that I’ve never been through the Nanjing Massacre, but even as I watched or read about it, it infuriated and disturbed me to know that has once occurred on China’s soil, and I loathe Japan’s earlier generations for that.

    My question remains unanswered though: who gave the Japanese the right to nationalize the islands? And how did those “supposed private owners” get title to the islands in the first place? What laws or land title system govern the islands? Even if I were a zillionaire and my roots run for generations in Hong Kong I won’t dare to profess my family own any of the outlying islands in Hong Kong, right ?

    As for all the riots in China and in Japan, with all wars, and “pre-wars”, the civilians and their livelihood suffer most even when none of them stirred this controversy up in the first place. And of course, one’s emotions run wild in these cases and overrule one’s rationality. So according to history, the Diaoyu islands were never ceded to the Japanese but they just exercise control over them conveniently on obtaining the neighbouring lands? And if they have returned Taiwan to China, the States should have returned the Ryuyu Islands and Diaoyu Islands to China too. There is no basis for them to return them to the nation which has surrendered and even returned Taiwan to China. This is adverse possession on a grand scale.

    All I can say is America and the West have a short memory span then if they could swallow that Japan is a pacifist country, considering what happened during WWII and the massive scale of slaughtering of the whales and dolphins families. So the Diaoyu Islands were returned to Japan in a state of prejudice against Communism and China’s growing economic power. Though I do not buy Communist ideology at all this is no basis for handling such an international affair.

    [To be cont'd]


  12. I am saddened by your comments on the history of modern China too. It seemed that China has always been the one to be plundered on throughout history till its recent economic ascent, and obviously even that doesn’t spur a corresponding breakthrough in its human rights record. So we are still subject to finger-pointing by all the other countries when we fail to improve on every single aspect there is in a nation under the sun. At the same time, our leaders were not wise enough nor did they possess the foresight in this entire broil.

    None of these nations are willing to back down, but at the same time they haven’t considered the full ramifications either. Once the spark is set off, everyone will have countless reasons to fight for all the things they feel unjustified about as well. Speaking of China’s history, there are lots the leaders will have to account for in recent years. The demonstrators are probably using the demonstrations to vent their anger out over other issues in the guise of snatching back the Diaoyu Islands already. Just as there never is a demonstration on Sundays in Hong Kong now that is just limited to one issue, if you listen to their “war-cry” carefully.

    Trust the States to want a bite of the cherry in any international disputes too, they have never trust China anyway so why would they do anything “fair” or in China’s interest now? If only they would stop pretending to be the mediator of global disputes, especially when you consider how fat their revenue is each year from their sales of arms and weaponry to fuel the countries at war with one another. Let’s hope they will really stop fanning the hostility, especially if one remembers the Nanjing Massacre. It will only be worse this time with the advancement in warfare technology as well. Even if China is to get the upper hand, we are retaliating for past wrongs, not present ones! Once people are on the battle-field, only emotions and the drive to survive is awash in one’s mind, nothing else! And the outcome will be one deeply regretted by all once (if ever) rationality is restored.

    Your closing comments sound so casual, will it really end that way? Though I totally agree with you that none of China, Japan and the States can afford to rock any political boat, what further pretences will they put up and will they be in a position to deal with the ramifications of those pretences in time? I guess I no longer believe in the rationality of those in power, especially when they have their own individual interests in mind as well. Still, any kind of war or revolution is the last thing any civilian could wish for.