IF any country ever wanted to make Japan look bad and feel worse, it could not have done more than Japan itself over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
For much of that time, national sensitivities in the disputes were strong enough to ensure that the status quo prevailed.
In the early 1990s for example, a Chinese general declared that the PLA (Navy) would come to Taiwan’s aid if any country challenged Taipei’s claim. Intriguingly, this was despite China and Taiwan occasionally having to work out their differences over their rival claims.
The writing on the wall was that whatever the differences across the Taiwan Straits, China was protective of Taiwan precisely because of its claim to Taipei itself. Taiwan did not question or reject Beijing’s position then or since: Taipei did not regard China’s stand as compromising the US commitment to protecting Taiwan.
This year Vietnam and the Philippines also tangled with China over other rival claims in the South China Sea, with its own separate dynamics. But if any Japanese official thought that would leave China weary enough to be pushed on the defensive, he would soon realise his mistake.
Disputed claims in the East China Sea involving China, South Korea and Japan are also a measure of Chinese and Korean bitterness over Japan’s wartime atrocities in their respective territories.
Both China and Korea suffered gravely under Imperial Japan, and regard modern Japan as insufficiently owning up to its horrific past to make amends for it. Thus Japan’s posturing over disputed territory readily inflames government positions and popular sentiment in China and Korea.
Talk of Japan considering the “purchase” of the Pinnacle Islands from a private owner early this year provoked Beijing and put Seoul on notice. As the purchase drew near in early August, Tokyo released a Defence White Paper re-asserting its claim to the disputed Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo in Korea, Takeshima in Japan).
Within days South Korean President Lee Myung-bak repeated his country’s claim to the territory by personally visiting it, the first for any Korean leader. Japanese officials lambasted his presence there, but media opinion in Japan cautioned against Tokyo overstretching itself with multiple disputes simultaneously.
The idea of purchasing the Pinnacles came in April from the incendiary nationalist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. His personal politics has enraged China and Korea, with denials of the Japanese massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing and the forced sex slavery of Korean (“comfort”) women.
Meanwhile Japanese officials continued to bait China. Last month Japan “nationalised” the islands.
China protested, and anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in dozens of cities. Protesters targeted retail outlets, resulting in closures and cutbacks in production and distribution.
Employment in China suffered somewhat, but Japan’s economic standing suffered more. Last Thursday an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun cited an industry survey indicating Japanese business sentiment in September to be the worst this year.
The commentary quoted the survey as seeing “a bleak outlook... ahead,” with the “scenario... coming off the rails.” It noted that the survey had been done before the latest spat with China, so the situation after September would be worse.
Meanwhile Japanese officials reprimanded China for allowing the anti-Japanese protests to occur. For many in China, Japan’s deliberate act of sealing ownership of the islands by officially nationalising them showed even greater irresponsibility.
Strategically, Japan’s action also brought Taiwan and China closer together against it. Policymakers in Tokyo had not only shot themselves in both feet, but failed to understand what had happened.
Writing in Forbes magazine, Stephen Harner said Japan’s action was “an unmitigated disaster” because economically Japan needed China much more than China needed it. He said “the fundamental truth” was that while China could easily get what it needed from other major suppliers, not so Japan.
Later Harner examined Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty and questioned a US commitment to defend Japan if hostilities broke out over disputed islands. He noted that after the US Defence Secretary told Japan to behave better on his way to Beijing, Leon Panetta told China that the US was neutral over the dispute and even discussed future US-China military cooperation.
Harner then interviewed Prof Susumu Yabuki, a leading China expert who had warned of the current problems and advocates replacing the US-Japan Treaty with a more realistic “US-China co-dependency.”
After weighing discussions between Japanese and Chinese leaders recently and in the past, Hamer found the current impasse the wilful legacy of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Japan’s foreign ministry.
In the Washington Post, Chico Harlan reasoned that Japan was becoming more confrontational diplomatically and militarily as China’s rise became more evident. While describing Noda as hawkish, he said all Noda’s likely successors would be even more so.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times reflected on his own longstanding interest in the Pinnacles, observing that the US claimed to be neutral but was actually on Japan’s side. After assessing China’s and Japan’s island claims, Kristof found China’s case to be more persuasive.
In Taiwan’s The China Post, columnist Frank Ching noted that the Chinese government and public both regarded the US as “very much on Japan’s side,” and that Washington should help “calm the conflict it helped create.” Ching mentioned a Chinese foreign ministry document detailing how in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty granting the US trusteeship, Washington “arbitrarily expanded its jurisdiction (over the Ryukyu Islands) to include (the Pinnacles).”
Like Harner, Ching Cheong in Singapore’s The Straits Times found the current problems the clear result of Japan’s actions. He also found Japan not only unable to contain the Pinnacles situation, but opening another can of worms in the disputed Ryukyus (Liuqiu).
He traced China’s connection to these islands to AD621, long before Japan annexed them in 1879. Ching Cheong noted that since the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, both the US and the Soviet Union agreed that the islands should be returned to China.
However, with the Cold War the US handed administration of the islands to Japan, for sovereignty to be decided later between Beijing and Tokyo. This vagueness later combined with self-interest to produce the present mess.
The 1972 Sino-Japanese Joint Statement establishing diplomatic relations between China and Japan later required post-war Japan to abide by the conditions of the two declarations. Whether Japan succeeds or fails in that will determine its future, which shall entirely be its own making.
Japan’s ambassador to China Uichiro Niwa had advised against Japan’s confrontational course, but instead of being taken seriously was sacked. Then his replacement suddenly died, and Niwa had to return to the post until another replacement, heightening Japan’s sense of impotent angst.
It’s just not Japan’s year, or century.
On Sept 25 the foreign ministers of Japan and China met in the first of a series of talks to cool down a volatile situation. They may realise that their greatest challenge is not each other’s government, but their own respective publics and popular sentiment on the streets.
Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara
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