Will the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands be the spark that sets off China’s first external military confrontation since the country’s rise as a global power? The PRC’s last serious conflict – the less-than-successful invasion of Vietnam in 1979 – showed the country to be a paper tiger. A burst of islet-snatching in 1988 looked a bit more professional. Now, in 2010, China is assertive, far wealthier, increasingly well-armed and the consequences of even a minor shooting match with the Japanese Coastguard off Diaoyutai on, say, our stock portfolios doesn’t bear thinking about.
Common sense suggests that cooler and wiser heads will prevail in the existing squabble over the detained fishing boat captain. Fine him and send him back, and both sides agree behind closed doors to keep a distance. But there is a hint of irresistible force-versus-immovable object here. Both governments face vocal, not to say potentially mouth-frothing and disturbed, domestic constituencies that will not accept any perceived concession to the other side. And there are some 40,000 sq km of continental shelf at stake, supposedly bursting with oil and gas.
Japan claimed them as undiscovered in 1895 and stresses that this was a separate act from the invasion and subsequent cession of Taiwan that year. After World War II the US treated the islands as part of Okinawa, which was under American administration until 1972, when authority was returned to Tokyo. Japan’s official line is there is no dispute – end of story.
China claims that its fishermen have been using the islands for centuries and the Japanese took them under the same unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki that gave them Taiwan. Neither the PRC nor ROC were represented in the talks leading up to the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty under which Japan officially gave up Taiwan and associated islands and the US occupied Okinawa and its associated islands (including the Senkakus, though they are not mentioned by name). Lots of fun details here.
With continuous jurisdiction – postwar occupation notwithstanding – since 1895, apparently confirmed by the 1951 treaty, Japan might have the better claim to legal title. Neither the PRC nor the ROC protested the fine print in the 1951 treaty.
However, China can be forgiven a sense of injustice. Japan took Diaoyutai in much the same manner as it was grabbing Korea and Taiwan at the time (and had taken Ryukyu, or Okinawa). The place is shown on old Chinese maps and don’t you forget it. There are Ming Dynasty references to the islands as being on the Chinese side of a maritime border with Ryukyu. Chinese harvested herbal medicines on the island.
In a perfect world, free of Japanese imperialism and Chinese expansion, the islets would probably belong to the indigenous people of Okinawa or Taiwan, with the latter maybe having a better claim simply due to proximity. Allow for the Sinicization of Taiwan and disregard the island-province’s peculiar status, and China’s historic claim perhaps seems fairer.
One problem for China is that it makes some ludicrous territorial claims in the South China Sea, so even if it has a case over Diaoyutai, international opinion might be biased against it – either on the assumption that Beijing’s cases for owning remote islands are always absurd, or for fear of emboldening Chinese nationalists in their demands to own everything up to the beaches of Vietnam, the Philippines and Borneo. That said, at heart, the China/Taiwan claims to both the Diaoyu and Spratly groups are similar: we found them first, way back. The case would be stronger if China could prove continued past administration of these places, but they are tiny, good-for-nothing rocks and atolls. A Solomon-like judge would declare that no-one owns them. International arbitration is unacceptable to both sides.
One difference is that bullying Vietnam or the Philippines is relatively easy; Japan is much more economically important to China and more capable of defending its interests (even without the US, which, despite all its involvement in treaties and occupations, essentially claims neutrality on the Senkakus). But the military gap between the PRC and Japan is closing, possibly faster than China is making the transition from humiliated, maybe trigger-happy would-be aggressor to mature, relaxed and self-confident pillar of international security. The obvious way out is joint economic development, but that implies concessions. Meanwhile, the nationalists on both sides are frothing at the mouth, and the competition for oil and gas reserves gets more urgent.
One of those uncertainties that make life that little bit more interesting.