ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Island dispute pits Japan against Taiwan and China
, October 13, 2012
Generalising about one billion people may seem fraught with hazard, but it is nevertheless true that the Chinese have a very strong sense of ethnic identity which comes to the fore when territorial issues are involved.
The clash between Japan and both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) shows just how quickly these nationalist issues can ignite. The dispute is over a small group of islands in the East China Sea known to Japan as the Senkakus, to Taiwan as the Daoyutai Archipelago and to China as the Diaoyu Islands.
As a result of this nationalistic feud, many Japanese-invested factories in China have been closed down and two-way trade has fallen sharply. Japan is especially vulnerable to such slow-downs, as China is its largest export customer.
Japanese exporters have found mysterious “problems” in clearing their goods through Chinese customs, a typical Chinese tactic to apply pressure short of formal governmental action against another country.
Nationalist sentiment in China is easy to ignite and much harder to extinguish. China’s leaders, by using the right linguistic formulas, can easily stir up latent passions.
One fool surrounded his Honda vehicle with anti-Japanese slogans then set it on fire, seemingly overlooking the fact that the car was almost certainly made in China.
China’s communist leaders are very wary of letting “the masses” get out of hand because there is no way of telling which way the masses will turn their anger next — perhaps against them? Mob rule is something the communist leadership does not want.
One of the most piquant scenes of the current dispute was seen on SBS television, where two young men were seen waving red flags — one flag was from China; the other flag from Taiwan.
China and Taiwan both agree that their adversary in this dispute is Japan. They also agree that for administrative purposes the Senkakus are part of Tucheng Township in Yilan County (which is on Taiwan’s north-eastern coast).
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou says Taiwan’s policy towards the Senkakus is based on “no provocation, no conflict and no avoidance”. The unchanged goal Taiwan is working towards is the “peaceful resolution and joint exploration of resources”.
As a rule, the so-called “resources” can be described as pie in the sky. Oil and gas may lie in abundance below the Senkakus, but that is only supposition. What resources are there now — for certain — are fish.
This puts President Ma in a difficult position domestically because Taiwan’s fishermen regard the Senkakus as being part of their traditional fishing grounds. Clashes between the Japanese authorities and Taiwan’s fisherman have been going on for years. Ma cannot afford to look weak.
Beijing is fishing in troubled waters. This nationalist dispute helps distract the Chinese people from the worsening economic situation at home. China’s communist leaders ultimately aim to exert strategic control over this important area.
It is frequently said that the Chinese are very patient people. Others pooh-pooh this, pointing to obvious examples of when Chinese are not patient, such as buying train tickets and boarding buses. But in a strategic sense, the Chinese are prepared to wait centuries to achieve their aims, as in the case of Beijing’s stated determination to return Taiwan to the motherland and to assert its sovereignty over the South and East China Seas.
Examining the historical minutiae of the conflicting claims to the Senkakus is not particularly fruitful, except to say the United States transferred the Sankakus to Japanese sovereignty in 1971.
Shintaro Ishihara, the firebrand mayor of Tokyo, during a trip to the United States in May this year, proposed that Tokyo purchase the Senkakus from their private owners.
Ishihara is the author of numerous books, one of which is The Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals (Simon & Schuster, 1991). He has been mayor of Tokyo since 1999 and has supported other pro-Asia and anti-Western politicians such as Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohammad and Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui.
Both Beijing and Taipei agree that the Senkakus are part of China. Taiwan has sent fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels to test Japan’s resolve to defend its sovereignty. China has sent fishing boats from Hong Kong, giving it a degree of deniability. So far, neither Beijing or Taipei is obsessing over “which China”?
For Japan, the eagerness with which the two Chinas have combined to test the limits of its sovereignty will spur an uneasy Tokyo to reassess its defence preparedness and is likely to encourage an enhanced naval shipbuilding program.
America has already stated the Senkakus are Japanese territory, thus falling within the US-Japan defence treaty.
As for Australia, we are one of the few firm allies Japan has, but will not take sides in this territorial dispute.