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East China Sea

Occupy East China Sea – China, Japan Face Off Over Disputed Islands

Chinese fishing fleets continue pressing their claims to the resources of a disputed island chain in the East China Sea while Japan considers what it can do with a Coast Guard fleet to protect their administrative control. The Senkaku/Diaoyu or Diaoyu/Senkaku island debate rages on with an occupy movement in full swing.

With the Japanese government’s decision to buy the islands from its private owner, rather than let right–leaning Tokyo governor Ishihara do the same (and escalate tensions further), a wave of anti-Japan protest spread in China. In addition to the anticipated demonstrations against Embassies and consulates, large crowds looted, set fires and attacked civilians (Japanese and Chinese, some in Japanese made cars).

The question over sovereignty of the islands has revolved around two main arguments from China –  historical precedent and geographical rights. Neither holds much sway in the international community of today rather than say several hundred years ago when imperial dynasties ruled.

For the history defense, China claims the islands were never Japanese territory and show up on several ancient maps of the region. History converges around 1895 after the Sino-Japanese war when the Japanese government began to control the islands. Han Yi-Shaw, guest writing in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times opinion blog dives deep into the historical record and concludes:

“Collectively, these official documents leave no doubt that the Meiji government did not base its occupation of the islands following “on-site surveys time and again,” but instead annexed them as booty of war. This is the inconvenient truth that the Japanese government has conveniently evaded.”

Whatever the reasons espoused by Japan’s rulers at the time, war was (and in some places continues to be) the main arbiter of establishing control over physical territory. If history was the gauge to judge international decisions over territorial disputes Mongolia could claim rights over China, India and vast swathes of the Middle East and Europe. Iran would have overlapping claims from their Persian empire. Mexico re-gains the American Southwest, but perhaps Spain, France and Britain would like to carve out the rest of the U.S.

Historical precedent also shows Japan did administer them, unchallenged, then lost them in World War II to the U.S., and then re-gained them afterwards. If China doesn’t recognize the end of war agreements (to some of which they were not a signatory) then far more lies in question than just a few islands.

Geography also plays a weak role. China is looking to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to arbitrate a claim that the islands belong to their continental shelf. Since they lie outside of the standard 200 nautical mile limit the government is setting in motion a review to extend the range of the shelf.

While this is certainly better than waging war to win back the islands based on an over one hundred year old conflict UNCLOS doesn’t settle national sovereignty issues, it attempts to resolve conflict over exclusive economic zones.

Neither historical precedent nor length of continental shelf is going to ultimately win favor with the international community or gain the credibility China wants for its claims over these islands. Maintaining the status quo by both sides has been the accepted norm. Increased interest in potential natural resources, rising nationalism on both sides, and China’s rapid military expansion threaten that tentative peace. Japan’s purchase from a private citizen may appear to upend the status quo, but not necessarily. It largely prevented more hawkish factions from attempting to fire up nationalistic sentiments.

For now both sides will need to look strong domestically without crossing a red line into open conflict. As long as neither country builds on the island, begins drilling operations at sea or aggressively restricts access to fishing grounds, a tentative calm can be maintained. The only peaceful way to resolve the dispute is for both sides to negotiate directly. Otherwise we’re back to the days of might makes right in Asia, and that didn’t go well at all.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Brian • September 25, 2012


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