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Turmoil in eastern waters

Publication Date : 18-09-2012


The long-running dispute between China and Japan about sovereignty over the variously named Senkaku (Japan) or Diaoyu (China) islands has entered a new, more active phase. These tiny specks of rock in the middle of the ocean attracted little attention until relatively recently.

Their economic value was limited to providing an occasional platform for fishing boats and it is only a few years ago that prospects of finding gas and oil in the surrounding waters have added to their potential value.

But the economic argument is not the deciding factor in the dispute; it is more a matter of national prestige. Both countries feel justified in claiming the islands: Japan cites international treaties to support its claim; China says the islands have always been under its jurisdiction. (Students of the Sino-Indian border dispute will hear familiar echoes in the rival arguments; India has always cited chapter and verse in building its case while China has been more sweeping and less specific in its claims.) 

Over the last few years there has been a steady escalation of the dispute and nationalistic fervour has been stimulated on both sides.

Actual possession of the islands is in private Japanese hands, and there it has remained despite recent efforts by the nearest local Japanese authorities, at their own initiative, to buy them from the owners. As such a purchase could only add to the complications, the central authorities seem inclined to acquire the territory themselves, evidently in order to retain control and ensure caution in its future use. 
But all caution in handling the problem risks being swept aside by the rising public sentiment on both sides. This is more marked in China where noisy demonstrations have taken place in a number of cities and where there have been some incidents to express resentment of Japan. No doubt the demonstrators were permitted, even encouraged, to take to the streets. And even before the demonstrations were staged, China had sent its ships into the disputed area, thereby considerably adding to the drama.

These developments have come as a reminder of the underlying problems and issues between these two towering giants of the East. In the previous century, China bore the brunt of Japanese imperialism, which was particularly harsh and nasty. The scars remain and China has never forgotten or forgiven what it had to endure. Periodic anti-Japan outbreaks in China have kept alive the resentment at what had to be suffered. Thus there have been regular public demonstrations at the time of the annual remembrance ceremonies at the national shrine for Japanese dead in World War II, in which high leaders of the government have occasionally participated.

For China, the occasion is yet another unhappy reminder of past tribulations, the more so as the persons being remembered are regarded as oppressors and wrongdoers. With these and other comparable public outbursts, a pattern emerged where, typically, confrontation was stoked by China and was eventually resolved through Japanese concessions to Chinese interests, especially economic. Thus time and again Japanese reparations for wartime damage to China were increased, and other economic benefits proffered. That was at a time before China’s phenomenal rise had put it in a league that made it a partner and a rival and not just a beneficiary of Japan’s economic progress.

Since that time, the Asian balance has undergone significant change. A resurgent China, having forged ahead economically, shows signs of greater assertiveness in its neighbourhood dealings. This is especially marked in maritime affairs, particularly in the South China Sea, which the biggest littoral, China, regards as virtually its own inland sea and has not shied away from using military means to oppose encroachment on what it considers to be its rights. 

However, there are many overlapping territorial claims and other littoral states have not been inclined to abandon their own claims: among these, Vietnam has been firmest in maintaining its claims and there have been clashes between the naval forces of the two countries.

One result of this more active approach by China, and of the failure of the South China Sea littoral states to resolve their differences, is that the tranquility of the region has been affected and there is a degree of uncertainty about where disputes can lead. No major complications are presently to be discerned but the situation requires careful diplomacy by all parties, for national sentiments have been aroused.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu affair is reminiscent of these earlier incidents that have taken place in the waters around China. It shows, too, how in Asia’s changed circumstances long dormant issues can be activated and become difficult to resolve. It is notable that in these otherwise insignificant islands there has been a clash not so much of interests, for the stakes are fairly small, but of national sentiments, which are that much more difficult to contain.

Not all Japanese have been pleased with the repeated accommodation by their authorities of Chinese demands on bilateral issues. From time to time strongly nationalist groups in Japan have tried to force a stronger response upon their authorities but on the whole such groups have been kept under control.

Yet nationalist sentiments are not to be disregarded and it is observable that there has been a gradual strengthening of Japan’s overall foreign policy posture and a greater readiness to pursue national interests without being expected to make amends for harsh dealings during World War II. In these circumstances, the Japanese authorities have tried to maintain calm in Senkaku/Diaoyu but have not modified or given up their claim.

The larger question relates to how far the competing nationalisms of the biggest eastern powers in Asia can be mutually accommodated. China is by now an established global player, the second economy, the rising power. It is showing signs of feeling its strength and becoming more ready to assert its national interests. Japan has been deliberately understated in its international activity. With its superior scientific and technological capacity it can rapidly develop its military capacity, should it so desire.

It is a leader in the global nuclear field and has proven ability in sophisticated rocketry. If it has kept far from the militarisation that it can readily attain, it is out of deliberate choice. As already mentioned, some elements in Japan would like to see their country adopt a more forceful external policy, even though that would inevitably affect the entire region. Nobody wishes to see the re-emergence of tensions in the Far East, so it is in everyone’s interest that the Senkaku/Diaoyu affair be kept under control and not be permitted to escalate into a dangerous confrontation.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary


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