Gwynne Dyer: Understanding the China-Japan dispute over islets in the East China Sea

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      Chinese survey vessels go into the waters around the disputed islands and Japanese patrol ships tail them much too closely. Twice last month, Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft flew into the airspace around the Japanese-controlled islands and Tokyo scrambled F-15 fighters to meet them. On the second occasion, China then sent fighters too. Can these people be serious?

      The rocky, uninhabited group of islets in the East China Sea called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China are worthless in themselves, and even the ocean and seabed resources around them could not justify a war. Yet both sides sound quite serious, and the media rhetoric about it in China has gotten downright bellicose.

      Historical analogies are never exact, but they can sometimes be quite useful. What would be a good analogy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute? The dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the islands that the British call the Falklands and the Argentines call las Malvinas fits the case pretty well.

      Worthless islands? Check, unless you think land for grazing sheep is worth a war. Rich fishing grounds? Check. Potential oil and gas resources under the seabed? Tick. Rival historical claims going back to the 19th century or “ancient times”? Check. A truly foolish war that killed lots of people? Yes, in the case of the Falklands/Malvinas, but not in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Not yet.

      One other difference: the Falkland Islands have been inhabited by some thousands of English-speaking people of British descent for almost two centuries. Argentina’s claim relates to a short-lived colony in 1830-33 (which was preceded by somewhat longer-lived French and British colonies in the 1700s). Whereas nobody has ever lived on the Senkakus/Diaoyus.

      Curiously, this does not simplify the quarrel. Neither China nor Japan has a particularly persuasive historical claim to the islands, and with no resident population they are wide open to a sudden, non-violent occupation by either country. That could trigger a real military confrontation between China and Japan, and drag in Japan’s ally, the United States.

      It was to avert exactly that sort of stunt that the Japanese government bought three of the islands last September. The ultra-nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced that he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, and the Foreign Ministry suspected that he would then land people there to assert Japanese sovereignty more vigorously.

      The Chinese would probably respond in kind, and then the fat would be in the fire. But the Japanese government’s thwarting of Ishihara’s plans did not mollify the Chinese. The commercial change of ownership did not strengthen or weaken either country’s claim of sovereignty, but Beijing saw it as a nefarious Japanese plot, and so the confrontation began to grow.

      It has gotten to the point where Japanese business interests in China have been seriously damaged by boycotts and violent protests, and Japan’s defence budget, after 10 years of decline, is to go up a bit this year. (China’s defence budget rises every year.) It’s foolish, but it’s getting beyond a joke.

      Meanwhile, down in the South China Sea, a very similar confrontation has been simmering for years between China, which claims almost the entire sea for itself, and the five other countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan) that maintain overlapping claims to various parts of the sea.

      Military manoeuvres are taking place, non-negotiable declarations of sovereignty are being made, and navies are being beefed up. Once again there are fishing rights at stake in the waters under dispute, and oil and gas reserves are believed to exist underneath them. The United States, because of its military alliance with the Philippines, is also potentially involved in any conflict in this region.

      All this nonsense over fish and petrochemical resources that would probably not yield one-tenth of the wealth that would be expended in even a small local war. Moreover, the oil and gas resources, however big they may be, will remain unexploited so long as the seabed boundaries are in doubt. So the obvious thing to do is to divide the disputed territory evenly between the interested parties and exploit the resources jointly.

      This is what the Russians and the Norwegians did three years ago, after a decades-long dispute over the seabed between them in the Barents Sea that led to speculations about a war in the Arctic.

      The Japanese and the Chinese could obviously do the same thing: no face lost, and everybody makes a profit. A similar deal between the countries around the South China Sea would be more complicated to negotiate but would yield even bigger returns. So why don’t they just do it?

      Maybe because there are islands involved. Nobody has ever gone to war over a slice of seabed, but actual islands, sticking up out of the water, fall into the category of “sacred national territory, handed down from our forefathers”, over which large quantities of blood can and must be shed.

      China will not just invade the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, because it is not run by a drunken and murderous military dictator (as Argentina was when it invaded the Falklands in 1982). But could everybody stumble into a war over this stupid confrontation? Yes, they could.


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      Jan 28, 2013 at 3:56pm

      How is it possible that this editorial doesn't raise the topic of nationalism as a motivator to stoke this drama's fire? Does Mr. Dyer fail to see the temptation for China to raise patriotic/racist fury against Japan as an excellent diversion from their own failings at home? Perhaps this would serve as another poignant comparison to the Falkland/Malvinas war.

      While I certainly agree with the conclusion, the analysis here is quite weak.


      Jan 28, 2013 at 4:58pm

      He actually does hint at that when he speaks of "sacred national territory".

      Second last paragraph

      Jan 28, 2013 at 5:51pm


      Read the second last paragraph again. This is precisely what Mr. Dyer is saying.


      Jan 29, 2013 at 6:56am

      Be wonderful just to jointly declare the area a Marine Sanctuary and off limits to at least fishing. Get the high profile cred with the UN all around, and a marine sanctuary people of any nationality can visit and scientists can study and tourists can dive.


      Jan 29, 2013 at 7:37am

      The writer failed to discuss why the USA "gave" the administration rights to Japan. USA obviously know Japan is not the rightful owner of the island.

      Jib Halyard

      Jan 29, 2013 at 9:27am

      The Falklands comparison is pretty weak. There were no shades of grey in that particular conflict, given that the inhabitants were 100% British. These closest comparison would be if China tried to declare sovereignty over Okinawa...


      Jan 30, 2013 at 10:06am

      Interesting to see 15 downvotes on my comment without 1 actual counter-argument. I guess hypernationalism extends to the straight's comment board. Nice.


      Feb 1, 2013 at 7:56am

      Robin, you don't read, do you? Or if you do, you don't think.

      Both nitroglycol and "Second Last Paragraph" cited the "sacred national territory" that Mr. Dyer wrote of in the second last paragraph of his essay (to say nothing about references to Tokyo's "ultranationalistic mayor"). And manage to believe that no one has answered you.

      If you want my 2¢ worth, nationalism is the least of the issues here. China's government will use nationalism to stoke the fires of the populace and make accept any war over this territory. But I don't see nationalism as a driver of this dispute.


      Feb 26, 2013 at 7:34pm

      No geographical references were made here by the author; however, one just has to take a quick look at the map to find these inhabited islands are about ten times closer from mainland China, or from Taiwan, to mainland Japan. The Japanese implication of these island came at the time when imperial Japan tried to colonize the entire Asia - thus entered the occupation of most part of China, Korea, Hong Kong, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, most of the SE Asia known as Indo-China, Philippines , and some part of Indonesia. If Japan was victorious in WWII, the whole Asia could have been under Japan's brutal occupation laws, no arguement there. For similar situations, Japan would have claimed Hawaii also hers - needed for its strategy locations, and the large population there are Japanese descendants. However, The United States has ever been more than strong enough to subdue the Japanese aggression. After the war, Japan always looked up to the Americans as their superior bigger brother, play baseball, wore jeans, became westernized and industrial. What worth were these islands to the United States after the war? Practically nothing; under heavy diplomatic relationship and big industrial ties with Japan (received huge industrial support of supplies and logistics during both the Korea and Vietnam wars, thus jump stared the Japanese economy), United States just handed these islands to their little brother - Japan, very much like the British did with Palestine in the Middle East (the Brits really created a mess over there, didn’t they?). The final words are - China just has to get strong to defend what is hers". WWII aggression caused Japan catastrophe and humiliations, the world can only hope that both countries can learn from their own histories.