TOKYO – If the leaders of Japan and China could act on their private feelings, they would probably both pool their money and buy a 20-megaton thermonuclear bomb from the Russians and use it to blow the Senkaku islands of the East China Sea to smithereens.
Since this is not going to happen, one can only surmise that this disputed territory of three rocky, uninhabited and essentially useless islands will continue to be a festering sore in relations between Japan and China; one that has the potential to drag the United States, as Japan’s ally, unwillingly into the dispute.
The Senkakus were the focus of a major diplomatic imbroglio between Japan and China which flared up a month ago and is now slowly subsiding. The Japanese, who control access to the islets and their territorial waters, detained the crew of a Chinese fishing boat that had rammed two of their coast guard cutters.
The Chinese crew was quickly released, but the Japanese kept the captain under arrest for two weeks and seemed intent on indicting him for interfering with the duties of public officials until Beijing went ballistic. China arrested four Japanese for allegedly taking photographs in a restricted military area, which looked suspiciously like taking hostages in a rapidly enlarging exercise in diplomatic shock and awe.
Japan backed down and released the skipper, Zhan Qixiong, while the Chinese released three of the four detained Japanese (it was not clear why it retained the fourth). Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who had planned to skip a meeting of Asians and Europeans, changed his mind so he could have a few words with China’s premier Wen Jiabao.
While the current crisis has cooled considerably, “it has the potential to cause more trouble,” says Phil Deans, professor of political science at Temple University. That has more to do with emotion than any coldly calculated interest in the supposed wealth of oil and gas under the nearby seabed. In Deans’ opinion, they don’t amount to much.
Rather, the issue is extremely vulnerable to exploitation by what Deans calls rogue elements on both sides. He is referring to nationalists from either Japan or China who sneak past the Japanese coast guard patrols and plant themselves on the islands, defying any attempts to evict them and rapidly turning their mere presence on the islands into a major crisis.
I recall a similar expedition to the Senkakus (or Diaoyu, as the Chinese call them) from Hong Kong in the months just before 1997 handover of its sovereignty to China. One local politician named David Chan became an instant martyr/hero when he drowned after jumping into the waters off of the islands.
When two other demonstrators managed to land on the island and raise the banners of China and Taiwan side-by-side, the picture took up the whole front page of the (English language) South China Morning Post under the headline "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED."
Hong Kong's leading Chinese-language paper Ming Pao rhapsodized: “The imperishable noble spirit of the Chinese remain on the Diaoyu forever.” One would think that it was the greatest landing since the invasion of Normandy - and this was in supposedly nonpolitical Hong Kong!
Deng Xiaoping, architect of modern China, who had cautioned against letting things “left over from history” interfere with China’s economic development and modernization, was still alive then. But he has been dead now for 13 years, and Chinese leaders are increasingly less patient about leaving alone things “left over from history” than they used to be.
Any new confrontation, whether by Chinese or even Japanese sneaking onto the island and raising flags, would likely draw accusations of appeasment from China’s armies of ultra-nationalist Internet warriors and bloggers. Beijing takes these messages seriously.
China’s rulers are undoubtedly aware of another lesson left over from history. The May 4 Movement of 1919 began as a student protest denouncing Beijing’s supine acceptance of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, which awarded former German concessions in China to the Japanese. It helped to bring down the existing government.
The potential for various “incidents” to escalate into major confrontations over these islands is mind-boggling. On any given day there are literally hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels working the waters near the Senkakus. What if all of them suddenly converged into the territorial waters at once, overwhelming the two or three Japanese coast guard cutters usually on patrol?
Reaction in Japan to the decision to release Zhan was muted. Kan’s approval ratings fell, and a couple thousand nationalists demonstrated against the step down. But underneath, an attitude of smoldering resentment against China is spreading. Wrote Yoichi Funabashi, editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper: “Japan and China now stand on ground zero, and the landscape is a bleak, vast nothingness.”
Could the U.S. be drawn into a confrontation, or worse, war, with China over this parochial dispute? Japan's new foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, fresh from a trip to New York where he conferred with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claimed she assured him that the Senkakus fall under the security treaty which obliges the U.S. to defend Japan if attacked.
The American view, however, is more ambiguous than Maehara might like to portray. Article 5 of the security treaty does oblige the U.S. to defend “territories under the administration of Japan.” However, whether Washington officially views the uninhabited and disputed islands as being “under Japanese administration” is an open question.
Generally, Washington has tried to maintain a strict neutrality in these maritime disputes in East Asia between foes and allies or even between allies, as is the case of the Dokto, another bleak group of islands in the Sea of Japan/East Sea claimed by Japan and the Koreas. It is a neutrality that may soon be tested in the future.