Once Again on the Territorial Disputes between Japan, China and Korea (I)

“Senkaku” or “Diaoyu”? 

The position of the main opponents. The crisis in Sino-Japanese relations broke out on Sept. 10, 2012, after Tokyo`s decision to buy out the Senkaku islands (in Chinese they are called the Diaoyu islands) from their private Japanese owner, over which the Land of the Rising Sun is currently implementing administrative controls, but are contested by China (and both Beijing and Taipei at the same time), remains at the center of international attention.

It has been more than two months, but the new focus of the conflict, despite intense diplomatic efforts, it seems, is far from subsiding… This is confirmed by recent events. On October 30 China sent four naval vessels inside the 12-mile zone around these uninhabited islands, where they met with Japanese Coast Guard vessels. Both countries Navies representatives flashed signs saying they were in their own territorial waters and demanding the other side leave.

A day later, the vice-president of the Military Academy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, at a conference of senior defense officials in Australia, used strong language in referring to the Japanese militaristic past, calling it a former “fascist” state that bombed the Australian city of Darwin. Western observers saw this as an escalation of nationalist rhetoric, and a deliberate strident attack on Tokyo, which reflects the high intensity of anti-Japanese sentiment in Beijing.

The development of the conflict in relations between two of Russia`s immediate neighbors, China (PRC) is the second and Japan the third largest economies in the world, requires a deeper understanding of the position, arguments, and the demands of each of the parties.

Japan’s position is summarized as follows:

– The Senkaku Islands have rightfully belonged to her since 1895. A number of Japanese researchers indicate that the problem is a complete absence of a historical “background “, and recognize that this is also the case in territorial disputes with Russia (the South Kuril Islands) and Korea (Dokdo-Takeshima).

It is the opinion of the Japanese authors that the Chinese have simply invented this argument. At that time the islands were uninhabited and not claimed by anybody. All the arguments put forward by Beijing and Taipei based on “so-called historical, geographical, geological and other reasons” are rejected as insufficient to confirm claims by the Chinese to these islands.

– Geographically, the Senkaku Islands are part of the Nansei Shoto archipelago, and are owned by Japan, but not as part of the Pescadores islands, which were give over to Japan by the Chinese Qing government along with Taiwan, after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 -1895 years.

– These islands according to the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 were placed under the control of the United States, which used them as military testing area, and returned to Japan along with Okinawa in 1971.

– Beijing (as well as Taipei) made no claim to these islands until the mid 1970’s, and began to put forward their claims only after the 1968 UN-sponsored academic research that was carried out, indicated the possibility of oil in the East China Sea.

– In 2012, the Japanese government decided to nationalize the Senkaku Islands specifically in order to prevent the deterioration of relations with China on the issue. The decision was to some extent forced in order to forestall the plans of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara who is known for his ultranationalist views, who said in April this year he intended to buy these islands, and build large-scale construction on them in order to permanently deprive China of any hope of the disputed territories being returned to them. However, Beijing did not appreciate the good will of the Japanese government and is not conducive to bringing that fact to the people of their own country.

Based on these arguments, many Japanese experts have said that the current crisis in bilateral relations, which has no basis in reality, was a manifestation of the “immaturity” of China’s political elite.

According to their logic, as a result of rapid economic growth in recent decades the PRC fast rushed in a global Olympus, but its leadership has not learned the rules of the game in respect of the behavior adopted by world leaders and therefore they are inadequately responding to local crises and disputes that sometimes arise between countries.

Another reason for the tough actions of the Chinese authorities is that they are hoping to rally their people on a nationalist basis, thus solving a number of internal political problems.

China’s position is naturally quite different:

– The Diaoyu Islands have been part of China since the Ming Dynasty period (since 1368), as evidenced by numerous references in the documents of the Ming Empire and the Qing Dynasty which replaced it in 1644.

– The islands were seized by Japan in 1895 as a result of the war, depriving Tokyo of its thesis about their “legal” acquisition.

– According to the decisions of the victors of the Second World War, specifically at the Cairo (1943), Yalta and Potsdam (1945) conferences, Japan lost all the territories occupied by force, and had to return to China, Taiwan and other related islands including Diaoyu.

– China raised the question of the return of the islands in 1972, not because of the discovery of oil around that time, but because in 1971, the United States, in violation of the post Second World War peace agreement and against the decisions of the Cairo Conference, did not hand them over to the rightful owner China, but to Japan (Washington returned to Tokyo only the right to carry out administrative control).

– The thesis behind the commitment of the Government of Japan through the nationalization of the islands in September 2012 was to mitigate the negative impacts and prevent them from being acquired by the administration of the capital city administration, does not seem convincing and is a subterfuge. The fact that the crisis was inspired by nationalist circles makes little difference.

The right-wing nationalists are also the representatives of Japan. The “Buying and selling” of Chinese territory is unacceptable to Beijing. At the APEC summit in Vladivostok on September 9, the Chinese delegation officially conveyed that position to its Japanese partners, but the next day Tokyo announced the purchase of the Senkaku Islands. Thus, it is the Japanese side that has made to alter the “status quo” in the matter, and provoked a crisis in bilateral relations.

– In the current impasse Beijing suggested to Tokyo to begin negotiations on the joint management of the islands. There has been no response from the Japanese side yet.

The Taiwan factor. Here we must mention the efforts of Taiwan, which is not going to be a bystander. Recall that the Republic of China on Taiwan also believes the Chinese Diaoyu Islands belong to them.

After all, China’s Kuomintang government was promised by the allied powers in 1943 in Cairo, the return of Taiwan and the Diaoyu Islands. Deciding to hold their protest separate from Beijing, Taipei launched many activities to defend the sovereignty of the Republic of China on Taiwan over the Diaoyu archipelago and freedom of fishing in its waters.

One of the strongest demonstrations was the sailing on September 24 this year of a flotilla of 75 fishing boats with 300 fishermen on board under the protection of 10 Coast Guard vessels to a distance of two miles from the islands.

The Taiwanese sailors exchanged volleys of water cannons with Japanese patrol ships and demanded that they leave Taiwanese territorial waters. The current president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan has made progress in establishing cooperation with the PRC; he is also a recognized authority in the field of maritime law and has for a number of years been developing the legal and other aspects of the problem.

He proposed, in particular, to send it to the International Court of Justice (Tokyo rejected the idea). Taipei, among other questions raised the geological argument, claiming that the disputed islands as well as Taiwan are peaks of the same underwater mountain range.

Regarding the current conflict, on August 5 this year President Ma Ying-jeou proposed a “Peace Initiative to resolve disputes in the East China Sea.” Based on the fact that, clearly siding with one of the opponents, the U.S. has lost the ability to act as an intermediary between Beijing and Tokyo,Taiwan’s representatives believe that the President’s plan is just in time, to be able to allow both parties to the conflict to move away from irreconcilable positions without “losing face “and may be favorably received in the three capitals, including Washington.

Ma Ying-jeou `s plan is based on the idea that “if sovereignty cannot be divided, resources can be shared.” The peace initiative consists of five items: general restraint, a focus on dialogue rather than disputes, a commitment to international law and the peaceful resolution of the conflict, the desire for consensus and development of a code of conduct in the East China Sea, and the creation of a mechanism for cooperation there.

It also provides for serialization of the stages. The first stage: the rejection of the controversy on the territorial issue and the transition to a constructive dialogue. The second stage: the division of marine resources through their joint development. In the long term, there would be a switch from parallel bilateral negotiations (Taiwan – Japan, Taiwan – China, Japan – China) in favor of tripartite negotiations.

As far as we know, in expert circles in China and Japan, the plan has generated interest and positive response, but it has had no official assessment by Beijing and Tokyo yet.

The role of the United States. In this situation, the most disturbing signs for the PRC in the current aggravation of the dispute over the islands’ is the looming shadow of the U.S. ”

Among the Chinese leadership there is a growing conviction that the root cause of this and other troubles, and the recent  anti-Chinese attacks from a number of neighboring countries, is the doctrine adopted two years ago by the Obama administration, the doctrine of a “return to Asia,” that the White House also called a “rebalancing” of the situation in the Asia Pacific Region. Chinese strategists also see this approach as an “American offensive” to contain the “peaceful rise” of China.

At the APEC summit in Honolulu in 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said firmly: “We will continue to lead, to drive … We are not here to reengage; we are here to lead”.

As one of the tools to implement this strategy, Washington chose the existing regional economic interaction format – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), in order to extend it, and lead to its use as an alternative to the China promoted intra-regional cooperation platform “ASEAN + 3” (China, Japan, Republic of Korea, without external players, that is without the United States), with a tripartite forum (in May 2012 in Beijing hosted the fifth summit of the great Far East three).

The United States strongly started to actualize the project to convert the TPP into an effective international organization, which on the one hand, the benefits would differ from the weak “talk shop” which APEC represents or the ineffective ASEAN (because it accepts the principle of consensus), and on the other hand, was to be the antithesis of “authoritarian regimes” in the region, above all, of course, China.

Now the Trans-Pacific Partnership includes 9 countries: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Peru, Vietnam and the United States. Japan is thinking of accession.

Of course, the military component of the strategy of “rebalancing” has not been forgotten.  Additional U.S. Navy and Air Force units will be relocated to the region (most air craft carriers are based now in the Pacific, not the Atlantic Ocean). A new U.S. Marines base is being built in the north of Australia in the vicinity of Darwin.

In these circumstances, according to Chinese analysts, Beijing feels its regional opponents that had been “lurking” are now active after feeling the support of the U.S. in trying to solve their own problems at China`s expense.

So the unfriendly action of Tokyo regarding the disputed islands does not look an isolated factor, and is “one link in the chain.” In similar steps:  on April 10, the Philippine authorities detained Chinese fishermen, on June 21, Vietnam  adopted a new maritime law, which infringes upon the interests of Beijing.

These and other conflicts that have arisen in the past two years along the borders of China, looks to the leadership to be a direct consequence of the “American counteroffensive” strategy.

In the case of the crisis over the Diaoyu Islands Beijing believes that Tokyo would not move to change the status quo, if it did not feel the strong support of a powerful ally behind it. Some Chinese experts do not exclude the possibility of coordination between Washington and Tokyo on the issue.

Anyway, in this dispute, the United States explicitly supported its main ally in East Asia, ensuring that in the event of a further escalation of the conflict Tokyo will have military assistance under the US-Japan security treaty. To confirm that they are serious in their promises the Pentagon has decided to use it’s most advanced reconnaissance drones based on Guam, for continuous monitoring of Chinese activity over the disputed islands.

In these circumstances, Beijing urged Washington not to exploit the existing conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region to its advantage and not to allow the states in the region to use the U.S. to solve their problems. Only in this way, according to the Chinese leadership, can further complications be prevented in the regional situation, and Sino-American relations.

(To be continued)


Dr. Alexander VORONTSOV | Strategic Culture Foundation




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