China-Japan Conflict over Islands in the South China Sea -October 1, 2012

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On the face of it, a group of islands in the South China Sea do not seem to be important enough strategically or economically for the littoral countries to escalate tensions amongst themselves. However, interestingly, the latest issue of The Economist carried a headline suggesting “Could China and Japan really go to war over these [islands]?”. These insignificant islands, which should really be called islets, are known to the Japanese as Senkakus and to the Chinese as Diaoyus. The Economist quoting one Chinese newspaper has averred that both sides should skip “the pointless diplomacy and move straight to the main course by serving up Japan with an atom bomb”. The Economist quickly called such a sentiment as a “grotesque hyperbole”. The row has recently erupted because the Japanese government is buying some of the islands from a private Japanese owner. China was reportedly affronted. It strengthened its own claim and repeatedly sent patrol boats to encroach on Japanese waters.

It is worth mentioning that China and Japan have had a fractious history in the twentieth century. It would be recalled that a militaristic Japan ruled by the War Party had occupied parts of the Chinese mainland in the first half of the twentieth century. The Japanese, not without a tinge of racism, considered the Chinese as an inferior species and did not feel much compunction in visiting brutality upon them. A horrible example of which was the so-called Rape of Nanking in 1937. Now the tables are reversed: China is the second largest economy in the world and is not afraid to flex its political, economic and military muscle, just as Japan did 75 years ago.

Both China and Japan, since the so-called recent U.S. pivot to East Asia, are monitoring what the U.S.’s stance to their conflict would be. According to the The Economist, “With the Senkakus, America has been unambiguous: although it takes no position on sovereignty, they are administered by Japan and hence fall under its protection. This has enhanced stability because American will use its diplomatic prestige to stop the dispute escalating, and China knows it cannot invade.” It is also worth stating that the tiny Japanese controlled archipelago is also claimed by Taiwan. In fact, on September 25th, there was a kind-of confrontation between Japanese and Taiwanese coastguard vessels. The Financial Times reported that “the only weapons deployed were water cannon and the Taiwanese beat a dignified retreat(!) after a few hours.” While skirmishes such as the above are likely to continue, Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Global Institute in Tokyo, says that “such an escalation remains unlikely in the near term given the strength of Japan’s navy and its U.S. alliance.” The Japanese Institute of International Affairs, a think tank, suggested that the Sino-Japanese tensions might create an opportunity to push the U.S. to formally endorse Japan’s territorial claim as part of efforts to ensure a “rock-solid” alliance. The Financial Times however thinks that Washington is likely to be reluctant to get involved in the sovereignty debate. Finally, Mr. Miyake states that “I’m sure China is making a big mistake. The harsher they are and the most assertive, the more they push us to America’s side. I personally thank them.”

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