East China Sea flashpoint for Sino-Japanese war?

The prospect of an actual shooting war between China and Japan got a little realer this week as both sides raised the stakes in the showdown over the barren East China Sea chain known as the Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese and as the Senkaku Islands to the Japanese. Over the weekend, angry anti-Japan protests spread to 85 cities across China. In Beijing, protesters besieged the Japanese embassy, hurling rocks, eggs and bottles. Police fired tear gas and used water cannon on thousands of protesters occupying a street in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Protesters broke into a Panasonic plant and several other Japanese-run factories as well as a Toyota dealership in Qingdao, Shandong province, ransacking and torching. In Shanghai, hundreds of military police were brought in to break up protesters outside the Japanese consulate, who chanted: ”Down with Japan devils, boycott Japanese goods, give back Diaoyu!” (China Digital Times, SMH, Kyodo, Sept. 17)

All this was sparked by Tokyo’s move to “nationalize” three of the five islets that make up the chain, signing a ¥2.05 billion contract with the private owner of the islets—Uotsuri, Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima. The government’s announcement of the deal came just after Chinese President Hu Jintao warned during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok that Tokyo’s plan to purchase the three islets was “unlawful and null and void.” 

In a statement issued after Tokyo’s announcement, China’s foreign ministry said: “Long gone are the days when the Chinese nation was subject to bullying and humiliation from others. The Chinese government will not sit idly by watching its territorial sovereignty being infringed upon.” The statement said Japan’s “so-called purchase” is “gross violation of China’s sovereignty over its own territory and is highly offensive to the 1.3 billion Chinese people. It seriously tramples on historical facts and international jurisprudence. The Chinese government and people express firm opposition to and strong protest against the Japanese move.” Premier Wen Jiabao added that China would “never yield an inch” over the islands. (Japan Times, Sept. 14; ANI, Sept. 11)

The China Marine Surveillance force has sent a fleet to waters around the islands, consisting of at least six vessels. Official news agency Xinhua quoted the deputy head of China Marine Surveillance, Xiao Huiwu, as saying the deployment “demonstrated China’s jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islets.” (Xinhua, DW, Sept. 17)

Panetta wars of war…
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking to reporters before arriving in Tokyo on a trip to Asia, appealed for restraint, and warned that China and its neighbors could end up at war if governments in the region keep up their “provocative behavior.” Speaking of the East China Sea escalation, he said: “I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict. And that conflict would then have the potential of expanding.” (Japan Today, Sept. 17)

…as US abets militarization
Ironically, a key reason for Panetta’s trip was to inaugurate a new advanced missile-defense radar on Japanese territory—an effort ostensibly designed to protect against North Korea, but certain to anger China. Japan already hosts one US such radar installation, officially known as the AN/TPY-2, at Shariki (Aomori prefecture, Tōhoku region, at the northern tip of Honshu). No location for the second has been disclosed, but a US working group has arrived in Japan to work out details of the site, officials said. (NYT, Sept. 17)

Taiwan’s claim
Taiwan also claims the contested chain, which it calls the Diaoyutai. Taipei expressed its willingness to negotiate with Tokyo over fishing rights in waters around the islands, which seems to be a recognition of Japan’s claim on at least a de facto basis—although it has not formally dropped its own claims. “We call on Japan to make sure that Taiwan-Japan fisheries talks will produce concrete results,” a Taiwanese government statement said after Japan’s purchase was announced.

But Taiwanese fishing communities whose fleets depend on those waters expressed skepticism. “Who will guarantee that Japan will abide by its words?” asked Lin Yue-ying, secretary-general of the Su-ao Fishermen’s Association in Yilan county. “Japan may have another card up its sleeve after the government acquisition.”  (Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 15)

And Ryukyu sovereign claims?
Inevitably forgotten in mainstream coverage of the conflict is that the disputed chain was for centuries under the control of the independent kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands, governed from Okinawa. This was under the suzerainty but not sovereignty of China’s Ming and then Qing dynasties starting c. 1370. Following a Japanese invasion in 1609, the Ryukyus were in effect ruled from Satsuma in southern Japan, while still maintaining token recognition of Chinese suzerainty. This fiction ended when Japan claimed sovereignty over the Ryukyus in 1872, and the monarchy, after initial resistance, formally accepted this and was dissolved in 1879.  China formally acknowledged Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyus under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, as part of the settlement of the Sino-Japanese War, which also ceded Taiwan to Japan. The Ryukyu Islands remained a formal Japanese prefecture until the end of World War II.

From the opening of the Battle of Okinawa in March 1945, Okinawa and the surrounding (Nansei) islands were severed from Japan by order of the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz. US military control was formalized in the San Francisco Treaty of 1951. It wasn’t until 1972 that these territories were returned to Japanese sovereignty as the prefecture of Okinawa. 

China and Taiwan protested the inclusion of the contested chain in the 1972 hand-over of Okinawa to Japan, both having started asserting sovereign rights over the islets after a United Nations study in 1968 indicated the potential for vast oil reserves in the surrounding seabed. Japan, in turn, protested that because neither China nor Taiwan had contested their inclusion in the San Francisco Treaty it was too late to assert a claim to the islets. 

Okinawa’s local leaders meanwhile protested that a large US military presence remained on their territory despite the official return of Japanese sovereignty. They were, of course, roundly ignored by both Tokyo and Washington. (Japan FocusKyodo, Sept. 17)

This remains as much of a concern today. On Sept. 9, tens of thousands rallied in Okinawa to protest plans to deploy the MV-22 Osprey, the trouble-plagued tilt-rotor aircraft, at the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in the city of Ginowan. The Marines want to bring in 24 Ospreys to replace a fleet of Vietnam-era helicopters, but Okinawans are overwhelmingly opposed, pointing to the aircraft’s poor safety record. A US Marine helicopter crashed into the campus of Okinawa International University in August 2004, sparking a wave of protests.

Organizers claimed 100,00 participated in the Sept. 9 protest, while Japan’s government put the figure at 25,000. In either case, it was the largest protest on the island in years, signaling a growing movement for the removal of US military forces from Okinawa entirely. (Japan Focus, Sept. 17; NYT, Sept. 15; Stars and Stripes, Sept. 14)