The Devil in the Deep Sea

China and Ja­pan have been bickering for years over a group of is­lands in the East China Sea and there is no so­lu­tion in sight as to who owns them.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Taha Ke­har

For over four decades, an ar­chi­pel­ago in the East China Sea has re­mained a bone of con­tention be­tween Ja­pan and China. Known as the Senkaku Is­lands in Ja­pan and Diaoyu Is­lands in China, the site has be­come the epi­cen­tre of a ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute with a his­tory that spans many cen­turies.

Over the years, the row has taken dis­tinct forms and emerged as a stum­bling block in bi­lat­eral re­la­tions be­tween both coun­tries.

Un­til re­cently, the mat­ter had at­tracted lit­tle more than a diplo­matic whis­per. How­ever, in April 2012, the dis­pute emerged as a ma­jor con­flict of in­ter­est be­tween China and Ja­pan when Tokyo gover­nor Shin­taro Ishihara vowed to buy the ar­chi­pel­ago from its pri­vate Ja­panese owner.

Sub­se­quently, Ja­pan bro­kered a deal to buy three of the is­lands. How­ever, this earned the ire of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and trig­gered a se­ries of protests. Since then, China has re­peat­edly tried to as­sert its stake in the ter­ri­tory. In Novem­ber 2013, it de­cided to cre­ate a new air de­fence iden­ti­fi­ca­tion zone along the ar­chi­pel­ago. Un­der this pol­icy, air­planes would be re­quired to com­ply with travel reg­u­la­tions set by Bei­jing.

Although the dis­pute has been ramped up in re­cent times, it can only be un­der­stood through a his­tor­i­cal con­text. The eight un­in­hab­ited is­lands which lie north-east of Tai­wan, east of the Chi­nese main­land and south­west of Ok­i­nawa are pre­dom­i­nantly con­trolled by Ja­pan. Since they are lo­cated at a prox­im­ity to ship­ping lanes and lie near oil and gas re­serves, the islets en­joy a strate­gic po­si­tion.

In the nine­teenth cen­tury, Ja­pan sur­veyed the is­lands for ten years and ear­marked the area as part of Ja­panese ter­ri­tory. Af­ter the Sec­ond World War, Ja­pan with­drew it claim to a large num­ber of th­ese is­lands un­der the 1951 Treaty of San Fran­cisco. In 1971, the is­lands were re­turned to Ja­pan through a re­ver­sion deal.

Ac­cord­ing to Ja­panese au­thor­i­ties, China did not take a keen in­ter­est in es­tab­lish­ing its stake over the area dur­ing th­ese de­lib­er­a­tions. To the con­trary, the lat­ter only be­gan to take a keen in­ter­est in the own­er­ship of the is­lands when re­ports of oil re­sources in the re­gion be­gan to sur­face.

On the other hand, China in­sists the is­lands have been a part of its ter­ri­tory since times im­memo­rial. A large num­ber of Chi­nese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials still be­lieve that the Diaoyu Is­lands should have been re­turned to the coun­try. In or­der to add weight to their claim, they have re­lied on an oft-

re­peated con­spir­acy the­ory. Chi­nese lead­ers have as­serted that the coun­try’s claim to own­er­ship was brushed un­der the car­pet to serve the nar­row in­ter­ests of the United States.

Mean­while, the US has thrown its weight be­hind Ja­pan’s own­er­ship claims. It has re­peat­edly stated that the is­lands fall within its se­cu­rity treaty with Ja­pan. The US has also pledged to de­fend Ja­pan in the event of an attack on its sovereignty in re­turn for per­mis­sion to oc­cupy mil­i­tary bases in the coun­try.

How­ever, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has voiced con­cerns over the con­flict sur­round­ing the is­lands. He has warned that if China and Ja­pan do not re­solve the dis­pute in an am­i­ca­ble man­ner, both coun­tries would find them­selves be­tween the devil and the deep sea.

At this crit­i­cal junc­ture, both coun­tries ap­pear to have taken the ini­tia­tive to elim­i­nate ten­sion. Ja­pan and China plan to ar­range a meet­ing in Sin­ga­pore in May to de­velop a mech­a­nism to pre­vent clashes and in­sta­bil­ity along the East China Sea is­lands.

Both coun­tries are in­ter­ested in find­ing a so­lu­tion to put on­go­ing ten­sions to rest and im­ple­ment a strat­egy for change by the end of the year.

It is far too early to de­ter­mine whether the talks will be bear fruit or, for that mat­ter, come to pass. Ear­lier, in Novem­ber, Ja­pan’s pre­mier and China’s pres­i­dent agreed to hold talks to reach a tan­gi­ble so­lu­tion to the cri­sis.

Both sides have suc­ceeded in tak­ing a se­ries of pos­i­tive steps in this re­gard. For in­stance, both coun­tries have de­cided to pre­vent the risk of a mil­i­tary con­flict in the area by agree­ing to use a com­mon ra­dio fre­quency for their ships and planes. Var­i­ous of­fi­cials from the de­fense min­istries in both coun­tries are op­ti­mistic about this ven­ture.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, Ja­pan and China also plan to es­tab­lish a hot­line to strengthen com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween se­nior de­fense of­fi­cials from both sides. Through en­hanced co­op­er­a­tion and co­or­di­na­tion be­tween both par­ties, the risk of a sim­mer­ing con­flict is likely to be averted.

Nev­er­the­less, an­a­lysts are skep­ti­cal about the over­all suc­cess of this since both coun­tries seem to be beat­ing around the bush rather than find­ing an ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion to the dis­pute.

It is equally dif­fi­cult to for­get the past and wipe the slate clean. For sev­eral years, Ja­pan has tried to block Chi­nese fish­er­men from en­ter­ing the Senkaku Is­lands. Sim­i­larly, mar­itime pa­trol ves­sels from China have con­stantly in­truded into the ter­ri­tory and have trig­gered a back­lash from Ja­panese au­thor­i­ties.

Amid grow­ing un­cer­tainty, both coun­tries have dressed up the is­sue sur­round­ing the sovereignty of the is­lands along the Pa­cific into a strug­gle for na­tional in­ter­ests. China’s pres­i­dent has fo­cused on ex­panded pres­ence of China in north­east Asia’s skies and wa­ters to as­sert its mo­nop­oly in the re­gion. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Ja­pan has failed to buckle un­der pres­sure and ac­cept China’s de­mands.

In March 2014, the Ja­panese For­eign Min­istry pub­lished a map re­leased by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment in 1969 which refers to the ar­chi­pel­ago as Senkaku Is­lands rather the Diaoyu Is­land. Through this step, For­eign Min­is­ter Fu­mio Kishida proved that Ja­pan’s neigh­bors have con­sid­ered the is­lands as a part of Ja­panese ter­ri­tory.

At this stage, both coun­tries are driven by the in­stinct of self­p­reser­va­tion. Na­tional in­ter­est is far more im­por­tant and is likely to frus­trate the scope for an ap­pro­pri­ate so­lu­tion. Fur­ther­more, the US will be un­able to make a dif­fer­ence in this re­gard if it con­tin­ues to fol­low a biased ap­proach. Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese an­a­lysts, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s at­tempts to strengthen ties with Ja­pan serve as wel­come proof of a strat­egy to stem China’s in­flu­ence. The so­lu­tion to such a deep-seated ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute can only be found by a neu­tral body which has no stake in the mat­ter.

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