Monday, October 1, 2012

China –Japan Conflict over Diayou-Senkaku islands

Defense and Diplomacy Page
Daily Sun, September 26
M. Serajul Islam


An anti-Japanese rage of anger funneled by nationalistic fervor is blowing in China over the former’s action to buy 3 islets from private owners in the island chain that the Chinese call Senkaku and the Japanese, Diayou. Japan’s provocative action led China to send a flotilla of naval and fishing vessels to the island chain that brought the two neighbours closer to a military conflict for the first time in its tumultuous bilateral relations since diplomatic ties were established in September 1972 surpassing the tension of 2010 over the same island chain. 

 The island chain, located in the East China Sea, is uninhabited; potentially rich in hydrocarbons and fisheries and is claimed by both the neighbours and by the Republic of China (Taiwan). Historically, China’s claim over the island dates back to the 14th century. However, after Japan’s surrender in the Second World War and its occupation by the United States, the islands came under US control. In 1972, the United States handed over the islands to Japan as a part of the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.  

China however did not give up its claim over the islands but preferred not to enforce it militarily.  Japan also did not physically possess the islands. Both sides preferred a status quo over the island chain till the 2010 incident when the status quo came close to be broken but was reinstated. China was more concerned at consolidation of the fruits of the communist revolution and thereafter in its economic development. In that development, Japan became a major partner of its erstwhile foe with its FDI after 1979. In fact, China’s economic miracle has been largely the result of FDI coming from Japan, Hong Kong, USA, South Korea and overseas Chinese. 

China embraced Japanese investment wholeheartedly and the benefits of economic cooperation with it following normalization of relations. Nevertheless, once ties were established, China brought into the bilateral relations the past, particularly the Japanese invasion and occupation during the Second World War. The Nanking Massacre of 1937 in which by Chinese claim, 300,000 men, women and children were butchered by the Japanese Imperial Army became a major issue of contention where the Chinese demanded a full and formal  apology for the invasion and the massacre. The Nanking War Crimes Tribunal tried and some of the perpetrators were also executed.    

Unfortunately, the 1970s was also the period when there was a resurgence of nationalism and national pride in Japan. That resurgence was encouraged by the economic miracle in Japan that made it the second strongest economy of the world.  Under the resurgence,   small and vocal minority in government and society in Japan argued that the Nanking massacre  was exaggerated and what happened was necessary for military reasons. In fact, the denial of the massacre became the basis of the resurgent Japanese nationalism that was supported by the new generation that saw no reason for accepting the pacifism that was imposed upon Japan by the United States and accepted by a post-war leadership that felt guilty for Japan’s militarism that they thought brought pains to Japan and those who were victims of Japanese militarism. 

Thus while China demanded formal apology from Japan for its wartime crimes, the demand fell on deaf ears. In his 5 years as Prime Minister from 2001-2006, Junichiro Koizumi epitomized the Chinese predicament. He not only refused to apologize; he instead ignited Chinese contempt and hatred for Japan by making yearly visits to Yasukuni  Shrine in Tokyo where 13 Class A war dead are enshrined whom China considers  war criminals responsible for committing atrocities during Japanese occupation of China. Junichiro Koizumi’s successors refrained from the yearly visits to the controversial shrine, but they have not rendered the official apology that China demands to resolve the historical conflict. 

It is this deeply rooted anti-Japanese sentiments  that Japan’s provocative action to buy the 3 islets has incensed. There are nevertheless a number of new elements in the recent conflict over the island chain. International politics has in the meantime shifted dramatically. Regional realignments are again taking new shape. The initiatives taken by the United States last year, particularly its decision to relocate 60% of its naval fleet in the Indian Ocean has raised fears in China of a new “Return to Asia “policy by the US. Such fear in China has potentials of negative repercussions on the United States that while wanting to contain China from expanding its influence in the region cannot also afford to be seen as taking an openly anti-China policy without endangering its economy that is deeply susceptible to China’s ability to influence it. 

The US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was in Beijing for his first visit after taking charge of the Defense Department last week. The outcome of his visit flagged some of these new realities.  The Chinese, aware that the visit was being watched more intensely in Japan than anywhere else, used the visit to show the US visitor more of the anti-Japanese sentiments. The Chinese Defense Minister used the visit to underscore that China would go to any length to assert its sovereignty over the island chain; even to military conflict if need be.  The US Defense Secretary, who witnessed the anti-Japan riots/demonstrations and rhetoric of the Chinese leadership, did not react. Clearly, times have changed and the United States that is obliged to defend any external aggression/threat on Japan as an attack/threat on its own territory by the USA-Japan Defense Treaty of 1960 did not show its willingness to take stand by its treaty obligations preferring the two sides to resolve their differences mutually. Nevertheless, it is still far from abandoning Japan and has only recently installed a defense missile system there. 

Thus the way the actors are playing out their hands signal that there is no imminent danger of a military conflict over the Diayou/Senkaku islands. China, that has now surpassed Japan as the number 2 economy of the world with distinct possibility of becoming number 1 in the not too distant future, is using the conflict to assert its new status as the dominant regional and a leading world power. It is also using it to find out how far the USA would be willing to back Japan based on the Defense Pact of 1960. On these options, the conflict has helped China to assert its regional dominance through the silence of the United States to react to the threats to Japan. 

The curious issue is why Japan started this conflict by buying the 3 islets. Perhaps, it did so to find out where it stood in the emerging regional equation, fearful that it is losing its power and stature in the region. If it is so, then the outcome of the recent tension is not likely to favour it. It has failed to evoke the type of response from the United States that would have given it strength vis-à-vis China and the region. In the bargain, it has given China a chance to show its emerging strength in regional and world politics.  

China showed that strength by the riots and demonstrations that had tacit official approval in more than 100 Chinese cities where Japanese companies and interests were attacked. The riots/demonstrations together with USA’s lack of interest to be drawn into the conflict would no doubt encourage Japan to revert to the status quo and try and settle the conflict in the negotiating table instead of provoking China further towards a military conflict. 

As Japan’s number one trading partner, China also has the economic leverage to influence Japan to opt to settle its claim in the negotiating table. More importantly, Japanese companies have thousands of billions of investments in China that have already been targeted strategically by China. China also has significant influence in the Japanese bond market. It could use these leverages to convince Japan towards negotiation.  Thus, the latest outbreak of conflict and the developments to date have clearly been to China’s advantage. Despite the fears in some quarters, China has no reason to go for war because the Japanese have already been pushed back on the defensive. 

The writer is a retired Secretary and  Ambassador to Japan



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