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On the occasion of the 81 anniversary of the Japanese invasion of northeast China (September 18, 2012), the History Museum in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, built specially to remember the anti-Japanese conflict (1931-45), rang a bell 14 times that signified the 14 year agony and disgrace China suffered at the hands of Japanese. Anti-Japanese demonstrations and protests ‘erupted’ across major Chinese cities, forcing the shutdown of many Japanese businesses. The recent standoff has been flared up by the detention of seven Chinese nationals on March 24, and the Japanese move to sign Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese and) purchase agreement with the private owner of the island on September 11. China has responded with sending half a dozen surveillance and fishing ships around the disputed island and by carrying out military drills in the East China Sea. It is interesting to note that China also commissioned its first aircraft carrier around the same time (September 23, 2012). Undoubtedly these developments have plunged the Sino-Japanese relations to their lowest ebb.

Why has it happened at a time when China would like to focus on its economic growth rather than pick up brawls in its surrounding? What are the circumstances surrounding the ins and outs of the Senkaku conflict? The dangerous standoff has definitely opened the wounds of the 14 year long conflicts between China and Japan, and pushed the theory of ‘seeking common grounds while reserving differences’ to the brink. Could it unfold another armed conflict between the two of the largest Asian economies as has been indicated by some of the nationalistic fervors emanating from various Chinese press reports. Let’s examine the following:

The history of the conflict:

The Senkaku Islands are situated in the East China sea under the jurisdiction of Japan, and are about 92 nautical miles northeast of in Keelung city of Taiwan. The islands primarily consists of Diaoyu (Uotsuri-jima in Japanese), Huangweiyu (Kuba-jima), Chiweiyu (Taisho-jima), Bei Xiaodao (Kita-Ko-jima), Nan Xiaodao (Minami-Ko-jima) and some smaller islets, reefs and rocks. The entire area of Senkaku islands is around 6.3 square kilometers, of which Diaoyu is the largest with an area of 4.3 square kilometers. Both China and Japan claims indisputable sovereignty over Senkaku.

China asserts that it has historical and legal records about the islands, which were first discovered by a Chinese called Yang Zai during the late 14th century (Ming Dynasty). More specifically the islands have been referred as Diaoyu in the Voyage with a Tail Wind (Shunfeng Xiangsong) written in 1403 during Yongle’s reign and the Record of the Imperial Envoy’s Visit to Ryukyu (Shi Liuqiulu) written in 1434. China claims that Japan’s earliest record about the Senkakus is found in a book entitled Sangoku Tsuran Zusetsu (An Illustrated Description of the Three Countries) [Sanguo Tonglan Tushuo in Chinese] by Hayashi Shihei in 1785. The book again has been written on the basis of Xu Baoguang’s Records of Messages from Chong-shan (Zhongshan Chuanxin lu). Zhong Shan is used for the then Ryukyu Kingdom. Xu Baoguang was Qing emperor Kang Xi’s envoy to Ryukyu in 1719.

China argues that prior to the annexation of Ryukyu in 1871 by Japan, China already had a history of over 500 years of friendly exchanges with Ryukyu. 1719 vintage book Nandaozhi written by a Japanese scholar named Arai, does not include Diaoyu in the 36 islands under the jurisdiction of Ryukyu. The 1875 map of Japan also does not have Diaoyu in it. Even in 1879 when Qing plenipotentiary Li Hongzhang discussed the jurisdiction of Ryukyu, both sides agreed that Ryukyu/Okinawa consists of 36 islands; Diaoyu was left out as before.

Japan on the other hand asserts that Japanese Shoguns subdued Ryukyu to accept Japanese suzerainty in 1609. Since then the Ryukyu kings paid tribute to both China and Japan. Ryukyu’s tributary relations with China were formally approved by the Shogunate in 1655. In 1872 the Japanese put the Ryukyu affairs under the ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in 1875 under the ministry of Home Affairs. In the light of these developments, Ryukyu terminated tributary relations with China in 1874. In 1879, Japan formally annexed Ryukyu and changed its name to Okinawa Prefecture. When China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki after its defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese was over Korea, China abandoned its claims to the Ryukyus. However, China argues that the Cairo Declaration of December 1943 and the Potsdam Proclamation of July 1945 explicitly states that Japan should restore to China all the territories it had stolen or taken by violence and greed.

The US Role

After the defeat of Japan in the World War II, Japan handed over the administration of Diaoyu Islands to the United States in 1951, the US returned the governance of these islands to Japan only in 1971. Japan asserts that China expressed no objection when the Senkaku Islands were put under the US administration under Article III of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, implying that China did not consider these as part of Taiwan. China claims that owing to the surge of Protect Diaoyu Island Movement in the 1970s, the US was forced to retreat from its earlier position that these island were under the sovereignty of Japan. However, China says that there is a change in the US position as the latter has privately acknowledged the sovereignty of Japan over Senkaku. This is precisely that lead Japan to develop the Islands, including the dispatch of US soldiers to the islands. Furthermore, as China is embroiled with countries like Philippines and Vietnam in South China Sea, the US has found it an appropriate occasion to fish in the troubled waters. It is in the backdrop of these events that the US has declared that around 60% of its military assets would be deployed in the Asia Pacific and that it would fiercely advocate the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Some analysts in China argue that the US is not content with its military deployment in Okinawa; therefore it would like to extend its military reach to the Senkakus. By doing so, the US would interfere in the Chinese attempts to restore its sovereignty in the Senkakus but also build pressure on Taiwan as the Western Pacific military island chain gets closer to the Taiwan Strait.

China has hoped that the US needs to be cautious in its approach as regards China’s core interests in the region. As far as US’s commitment to support Japan in case of military conflict, under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the Japan and the United is concerned, China wishes that the US must recognize that the treaty is a product of the Cold War, and has no relevance under present circumstances. In a veiled warning to the US, it has stated that the comprehensive national strength of China has increased manifolds since then, therefore the US should not be burning its fingers by taking the Japanese chestnuts out of the fire.

Why Senkakus are so important to both China and Japan

The analysts have often pointed to the economic benefits and the strategic location of the island. As far as the economic benefits are concerned, both would like to extract the huge reserves of minerals, oil and natural gas from underneath the islands, as a 1969 UN reports has indicated that there are huge reserves of oil and gas in the area. It was also after the report went public that the voices of sovereignty have been louder in both the countries. Secondly, since Japan has been fishing in these waters since 1895, it does not want to let the benefits go over to China. As far as strategic position is concerned, if the Japanese retain the Islands, it can set up air and sea surveillance reconnaissance systems, shore-based anti-ship-to-air missiles on the island. By doing so, it could put a blockade to all the ports and air routes emanating from northern Taiwan, and also put areas such as Fuzhou, Wenzhou and Ningbo in mainland China under its radar. China would be very apprehensive of every move of the Japanese it decides to do so. Therefore, the establishment of the military bases and the deployment of heavy weaponry on the island will pose a serious threat to China’s national defense and security, argues China.

The future

China is in the favor of maintaining status quo on the Senkaku issue, for it believes that it would be better if the issue is left to the future generations to resolve. This was the thinking of the architect of China’s reforms, the late Deng Xiaoping. While restoring relations with Japan, Deng Xiaoping pointed out on October 25, 1978 that it would be wise to shelve the issue of Diaoyu if both sides fails to reach an agreement. He pointed out that may be the future generations would have better wisdom and ways to resolve the issue mutually acceptable to both the countries. On May 31, 1979 during the visit of the Liberal Democratic Party Congressman Zenko Suzuki Shiyou to China, Deng Xiaoping proposed common development of the Diaoyu. In June 1979, China formally pronounced publically that it is willing to put aside the issue and seek common development of the resources in the vicinity of the island without referring to the sovereignty.

It is in this context that China has accused Japan of unnecessary raking of the the sovereignty issue, as well as the position taken by the US to take sides with Japan in any military conflict between China and Japan under San Francisco Treaty. China hopes that the US plays a balancing act in the region. Both China and the US knows that they are not ready for a direct military confrontation at this time, therefore, could the US urge both the parties to go back to the Deng’s position on the issue or the so called status quo.

(Dr. B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. The views are solely his own. )

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