China's Expansionism Echoes History

By Bruce Jacobs

In recent months five uninhabited islands east of Taiwan and southwest of Japan have become a new global flashpoint. The Chinese now claim these islands - called the Diaoyu in China, the Diaoyutai in Taiwan and the Senkaku in Japan - and have repeatedly threatened Japanese control with military overflights and naval activity, including the provocative locking of weapons control radar on to a Japanese ship.

These East China Sea activities follow increased Chinese actions and threats in the South China Sea. China argues such coercion is appropriate since all such locations belong to China, but history shows these Chinese territorial claims lack substance.

The Chinese claims for the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands supposedly date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). During the Ming dynasty, China considered Taiwan to be "foreign territory" and certainly China made no claims for the much smaller, largely uninhabited Diaoyu Islands.

The exiled Chiang Kai-shek government on Taiwan after World War II also did not claim these islands until Chinese students overseas in the early 1970s began to agitate that the islands belonged to China at the very same time investigations suggested a possibility of oil in the seas surrounding the islands.

Similarly, the Chinese have claimed the whole of the so-called South China Sea as its territory despite many parts of this claim being south of Vietnam -- more than 1000km from China's southernmost Hainan island. The basis for the Chinese claims is the discovery of Chinese ceramics, which were widely traded and carried in Arab and Southeast Asian ships across the area.

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Yet, despite such flimsy claims, China has used force in these international waters to pressure Vietnam and The Philippines.

China's self-confidence and territorial threats have escalated in recent years as the economy has improved and China has devoted vast funds to boosting its military.

Quite rightly, the US and its democratic allies, including Australia, have attempted to deal with the Chinese. However, the Chinese appear to view such attempts as weakness, a perception that increases both China's arrogance and its willingness to intensify pressure to "regain" its supposed long-lost territories.

In searching for historical parallels, the current Chinese regime most resembles the Nazis and the Japanese militaristic regime of the 1930s-40s. All three regimes became intensely nationalistic.

China's leaders use nationalism because they believe it gives them legitimacy. Yet, government-sponsored protests against Japan are not always easy to control and can create popular nationalist demands which Beijing cannot meet.

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Bruce Jacobs is professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University.

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