Diaoyu islands: Torn between two countries

The dispute over some ‘guano-covered rocks’ has brought to fore historical issues between Japan and its neighbours.

The islands known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese have been claimed by both countries [Reuters]

US Vice President Biden is on a visit to Japan, South Korea and China, and it has become a very challenging trip in light of the enormously troubled relations between these three Asian countries.

On November 23, Beijing announced its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. Tokyo called it a measure to unilaterally alter the status quo and requested that Beijing cancel it. Many observers think a low-intensity armed confrontation between China and Japan will likely happen soon, which could be the most stunning global geopolitical risk in 2014. Biden has called for establishing a crisis management mechanism to prevent a worst-case scenario.

Regional rivalries

Indeed, the drama unfolding in the region is a complicated mix of historical legacy, national pride and Realpolitik among major countries. Tokyo views China’s rise as a pressing nightmare, and Washington feels that Beijing can no longer tolerate the US’ hegemonic role in the west Pacific. In the meantime, Beijing believes a deepening US-Japan alliance is the biggest security threat in its periphery, which may jeopardise its modernisation course in the coming decade.

China-Japan island dispute escalates over air defence

Charles Emmerson reminds us that the world in 2013, looks “eerily” like the world in 1913, on the eve of the Great War. Though history does not repeat itself exactly, we need to keep a close eye on the tricky dynamics of the Beijing-Tokyo-Washington triangle: An international political drama involving a rising China, a fretful Japan and a weary US.

The relationship between China and Japan has turned sour in recent years mainly because of the disputed islands – Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese – although the Japanese government denies there is a dispute.

Diaoyu islands, as part of Taiwan, were ceded to Japan after the Qing empire – the last of the imperial dynasties of China – was defeated in the first China-Japan war in the 1890s. The Qing dynasty was replaced with the Republic of China in 1911. In 1931, imperial Japan invaded China. In World War II, the Chinese government led by “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-shek allied itself with the US, the UK and the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany and Japan.

The Cairo Declaration of December 1943, demanded Japan “be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed”, and for the territories, including Diaoyu, to be restored to the Republic of China. However, China’s civil war added complexity to this issue. The People’s Republic of China was founded by Mao Zedong and his revolutionary comrades in 1949, but Chiang’s regime, which was based in Taiwan, still claimed itself as the legal representative of China, and made no compromise on Diaoyu’s sovereignty.  

US-China rapprochement

In 1972, then US President Richard Nixon made an historic visit to Beijing, and with the help of his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, achieved a US-China rapprochement. The US leader convinced Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai, who was the Chinese premier and de facto top diplomat, that the US-Japan alliance was instrumental in curbing the impulses of Japanese militarism, and containing an expansionist Moscow. For China’s part, this tacit agreement served as the cornerstone of China-US-Japan ties and led to the implicit alliance with the US against the Soviet Union, in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, the administrative rights to Diaoyu islands were returned to Japan, by the US, in 1972. This decision triggered sweeping protests in Taiwan. Chiang’s regime still expected Japan to stand with it the “Free China”, in confronting “Red China”.

But, the Japanese government established diplomatic relations with Beijing in September 1972, which was interpreted as a counter measure to the “Nixon shock”. Chinese leaders viewed it as a big win in their rivalry with Chiang’s regime in Taiwan, and in improving its international relations given the gathering threat from the Soviet Union. There was an “unwritten agreement” between Chinese and Japanese top leaders to shelve the Diaoyu islands dispute.

Victor Cha, a Korean-American professor and former senior official at US National Security Council, strongly argued that US leaders should not underestimate the sensitivity of historical issues in Asian international relations.

Though shelving the territorial depute was quite helpful in satisfying the grand strategic goals of national leaders, few of them were able to anticipate that the dispute over some guano-covered rocks will become a hot-button issue that can lead to another Great War 40 years later.  

In September 2012, the Japanese government officially decided to nationalise the islands, and openly denied the “shelving the dispute” agreement with China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is unabashed in portraying China as a regional security threat. Abe has called for the formation of a “democratic security diamond” with Australia and India, among other so-called like-minded countries, to confront a rapidly rising China, which overtook Japan as the second largest world economy in 2010. 

Undiplomatic words

Ironically, Abe tarnished these democratic values by proposing that there was no agreed upon definition of “aggression”, when asked about his views on Japanese wartime history. Additionally, South Korean President Park Geun-hye refused to hold a meeting with Abe because of his choice of words regarding the “comfort women” (wartime forced sex slaves by Japanese) issue. Abe, in retaliation, called South Korea a “foolish country” in a magazine interview, comparing it to China, which he called “absurd”.

Abe’s distorted historical views and unreasonable arrogance towards its neighbouring countries even made the US government unhappy. In October, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel paid their respects at Chidorigafuchi – Japan’s national cemetery – rather than the Yasukuni temple which enshrines several notorious war criminals from WWII. The shrine portrays Japan as a saviour of Asians, and the US as an aggressor in light of the atomic bombings of two cities in Japan. 

It is also ridiculous for Abe to consider the Yasukuni shrine as a parallel to the US’ Arlington National Cemetery which memorialises American soldiers who fought againt Nazi Germany and Japan during WWII.

In December 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees before a monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The moment facilitated the reconciliation between post-war Germany and its neighbouring countries. But even 40 years later Japanese right-wing forces, including Abe himself, still dismiss the truth of the Japanese army’s wartime atrocities, of which the 1937 Nanking Massacre and the inhumane treatment of “comfort women”, are just two examples.

Victor Cha, a Korean-American professor and former senior official at US National Security Council, strongly argued that US leaders should not underestimate the sensitivity of historical issues in Asian international relations. However, unlike the supportive role played by the US in the France-Germany reconciliation during the Cold War era, US strategists have good reason to argue that a low-intensity contentious China-Japan relationship is in the US’ national interests in terms of consolidating the hub-and-spoke alliance system in the Pacific region.

Washington playing with fire?

An increasingly weary and inward-looking Washington should realise that it is an increasingly dangerous game. While it requested Beijing to do more on the North Korean nuclear issue, Washington is doing much more to deepen its alliance with Tokyo vis-a-vis Beijing. It is certainly an unacceptable contradiction for President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders. The US has been working hard in soliciting Japan and South Korea to jointly build up a missile defence system in the region, which will fundamentally put China in a strategically disadvantageous position. The more than 500 US military surveillance operations near the coastal areas of China are viewed by most Chinese as a major humiliation.

Japan’s more assertive National Defence Programme Guidelines (NDPG) will be unveiled next month and the US-Japan Defence Cooperation Guidelines will be rewritten next year. The newly established ADIZ by China may serve as a warning: “DMinghaoon’t corner us too much; if you are playing tough, we have to also.”

In fact, the US was the inventor of the ADIZ in 1950s. Japan established its own ADIZ as early as 1969, and expanded its scope to as close as 130km from China’s west coastline. Beijing aims to bring Japan back to the negotiating table and press Abe to recognise the existence of disputes over the islands.

While Obama is concentrating on a US-Iran deal, there is a more significant geopolitical balance for him to strike in East Asia. The drift in the Washington-Beijing-Tokyo triangle is dangerous and potentially disastrous for the region, and the world at large. A new grand bargain is very much needed, and the key task is to establish a truly multilateral security apparatus that can accommodate the US’ determined pivot and increasing assertiveness in Tokyo and Beijing. 

Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute, a Chinese international policy think-tank. He is also an adjunct fellow with the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University and the executive editor of China International Strategy Review.