On September 14, the Japan Times in its editorial wrote: "The government on Tuesday moved forward to nationalize three of the five islets that compose the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. It signed a 2.05 billion contract with the owner of the three islets - Uotsuri, Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima - and decided to use 2.05 billion out of the fiscal 2012 budget's reserve fund."
Under ordinary circumstances, such a sales contract should not have raised anyone's eyebrows. But the problem is Senkaku is a disputed territory which is equally claimed by China. The Chinese call the territory: Diaoyu Islands and not Senkaku. (Such naming conventions by opposing parties are, however, nothing new, and there are tons of such examples in our world.) Separately, Taiwan also claims the islands.
"The Diaoyu Islands are an inalienable part of China's territory, and the Chinese government and its people will absolutely make no concession on issues concerning its sovereignty and territorial integrity," declared Premier Wen Jiabao at an inauguration ceremony for statues of late Chinese leaders Zhou Enlai and Chen Yi at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing would not "sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated." "China strongly urges Japan to immediately stop all action to undermine China's territorial sovereignty and return to a negotiated settlement to the dispute. If Japan insists on going its own way, it will bear all the serious consequences that follow," the ministry said in a statement.
Opposing views to the Chinese claims claim came from Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura who said that the decision to nationalize the islands was "to maintain the Senkakus peacefully and stably." Fujimura repeated that the islands are part of Japan's territory and should not cause any friction with other countries or regions. "We certainly do not wish the issue to affect our diplomatic relations with China and it is important to avoid any misunderstanding or an unexpected event," he said.
In its Q&A page, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan stated, "Since then , the Senkaku Islands have continuously remained as an integral part of the Nansei Shoto which are the territory of Japan. These islands were neither part of the island of Formosa nor part of the Pescadores Islands which were ceded to Japan from the Qing Dynasty of China in accordance with Article 2 of the Treaty of Shimonoseki which came into effect in May of 1895. Accordingly, the Senkaku Islands are not included in the territory which Japan renounced under Article 2 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. The Senkaku Islands have been placed under the administration of the United States of America as part of the Nansei Shoto Islands, in accordance with Article 3 of the said treaty, and are included in the area for which the administrative rights were reverted to Japan in accordance with the Agreement between Japan and the United States of America Concerning the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands signed in 1971." It further stated, "It is only since the 1970s that the Government of China and the Taiwanese Authorities began making their own assertions on territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which constitute Japan's inherent territory (See reference). Until then, they had never expressed any objections, including to the fact that the Islands were included in the area over which the United States exercised the administrative rights in accordance with Article 3 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty."
Xinhua, the official press agency of the People's Republic of China, came up with the official version contesting the Japanese claim and stated on Sept. 18: "Japan's arrogance and provocation regarding the Diaoyu Islands is in line with its complex formed over one century ago, when it proclaimed superiority over China and Asia. The two countries became rivals over the last 500 years, with Japan catching up with and defeating China in the late 19th century. Even its defeat in World War II could not break its sense of superiority, as Japan considered China's victory to be a present from the United States and the Soviet Union, turning a blind eye to the Chinese people's heroic resistance... The present China is not the same as the China of years past. Japan should face the situation, drop its obsolete sense of superiority and take a constructive attitude to solve disputes."
Three uninhabited islets, measuring a few square kilometers, comprising eight rocks altogether, and located halfway between the Japanese island of Okinawa to the north and Taiwan to the south, no one took notice of the Senkaku Islands until oil was discovered in its vicinity. They are close to strategically important shipping lanes, and offer rich fishing grounds.
And now with the competing claims, anti-Japanese protests are continuing across China. Hundreds of Japanese firms closed their businesses, as Chinese demonstrators took to the streets to mark the anniversary of the start of Japan's 14-year occupation of northern China in 1931. And there were plenty of reminders suggesting that the Senkakus are but one element in a good deal of unfinished business between China and Japan.
While there have been no reports of violence against Japanese citizens in China, some expatriates voiced concern about their safety, and many stayed at home on the advice of their employers and the Japanese government. If the tension worsens, it is possible that Japanese companies may consider withdrawing their business from China. It is worth noting that China is Japan's single biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth a record $345 billion last year.
As I write, there are reports that a flotilla of 10 Chinese surveillance ships has been spotted near the disputed Senkaku Islands, keeping political tensions high. Since Tuesday, a total of 16 Chinese official surveillance ships, 10 marine surveillance vessels and six fisheries surveillance ships, have entered Japanese territorial waters off the islands.
In the middle of the tug of the war is the USA, which under the Okinawa reversion deal has returned the islands to Japan in 1971. Which side will it take in this regional dispute?
On Thursday, China's state-controlled newspaper Global Times, stated, "Japan is nothing but a puppet of the U.S. From a strategic point of view, its territorial dispute with China does not mean much to the U.S." It added that Japan is only one of several "strategic tools" used by the U.S. to confine China's rise. The real worry for Washington, said the newspaper, is that "once there's a strategic confrontation between China and itself, it won't be able to bear the consequences." The Chinese government does not believe Washington will abide by the 1951 Japan-U.S. mutual security treaty and go to Tokyo's assistance in the event of a war between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands.
I, however, beg to differ. I believe if the dispute ends in a war, in the initial stage although the USA may not take a side (simply because its long term strategic objectives are better served through mutual weakening of both the parties to the dispute through conventional warfare), as the war drags on the USA will take the side of Japan.
Suffice it to say that our world is becoming increasingly confrontational with soaring energy demands and dwindling resources, where the big powers -- possessing sophisticated killing machines - are dictating the outcome, let alone the discourse, on any such contentious matters. So, as with Kashmir for India, and Tibet and Uighur territories for China, and Arakan for Myanmar - each of these dominating groups, behaving like imperial overlords, control the narratives rather than the very people who live there to decide the outcome. Unless, of course, the country is Sudan or Indonesia!
However, Japan is no pushover, and for China to assume that it is would be utterly insane.
In disputed territories, my preference would be to let the very people who live there to decide their fate as to which side to take, or, if necessary, to maintain a separate identity on its own right. Unfortunately, on such matters, there is no difference in government policies between democratic India and non-democratic China; none of these rising powers wants to settle such problems through a plebiscite in the disputed territories to let the affected people decide their own fate.
Territorial disputes are further complicated when a territory is uninhabited, and more so when it is tied up with oil and gas reserves.
In a recent commentary, Jonathan Manthorpe of the Vancouver Sun opined that both Japan and China are going through leadership contests and inevitably, both countries will have revised imperatives next year, but the bold outline of the picture will not change. Ultimately, the dispute will be a test of wills between Japan and China; and may end up in testing the strength of Washington's dedication to its defense alliance with Tokyo.
Here are my two cents on the dispute! The claims of Japan on Senkaku Islands seem to make more sense than those of China, esp. given the fact that the owners of the islands have now sold these to Japan. I, therefore, hope that sanity will prevail and China will relinquish her claims on the disputed territory. China's economic interests are better served that way than a violent confrontation with Japan. For her to sustain the upward trajectory in economic growth, she must resist all imperial temptations.
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book - Devotional Stories - is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.