From time to time, we read about the confrontation between Japan and China over some insignificant islands called the Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, which are also claimed by Taiwan. Japan also faces claims by South Korea over the Dodko islets, called Takeshima in Japan.
The fact that tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in their respective capitals in the last few weeks, and that China took the extraordinary step of deserting the Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Tokyo a few days ago, should not be taken lightly – it is the opening of a very serious regional conflict.
First of all, we should be aware that Asia is a continent where colonialism has created much deeper frustrations than in any other part of the world, with the possible exception of the Arab region. Unlike Africa, Asia – which was invaded first by Europe and later by the United States – had a long history, a vibrant cultural development and established forms of national government. Here is not the place to expand on this, but let us remember that only Thailand remained more or less independent. All other countries were colonised or put under control by European powers. The frustrations and humiliations still remain alive today.
Let us stay with China and Japan. China was obliged by Great Britain twice – after a war in 1839 and a second in 1856 – to open its borders so that British merchants could sell opium which obviously the Qing authorities did not want. The trade in opium jumped from 15 tons in 1730 to 4,200 tons in 1856. France and the United States also joined the banquet. Then, in 1894, Japan invaded China to take Korea. Japan returned in 1937, and that conflict eventually merged with the Second World War. Chinese losses are estimated at 1.7 million dead and Japanese at 480.000.
We now move to Japan. In 1853, the American Commodore Perry appeared in the bay of Tokyo and ordered the government to open its borders and trade. Japan militarised and modernised, to become once again a sovereign country, and engaged in a victorious war with Russia in 1904 to make clear that it was no longer a backward country. Then, at the end of the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wiped out and the country was subjected to American occupation from 1945 to 1952, during which period the head of the occupation forces, General Douglas MacArthur, changed all Japanese institutions.
It is also worth remembering that Japan had invaded several Asian countries, and memories of its harsh occupation still remain.
Now China and Japan are the second and the third economic powers of the world, and China will overtake the United States in the next decade. In Japan, which has stagnated (albeit at a very high level) for 20 years, very vocal nationalism is fermenting. Three major towns, Nagoya, Tokyo and Osaka, with a combined
population of 40 million people, are run by nationalists. Shinzo Abe, the newly-elected leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which has been in power with little exception since the end of the war, wants to change the article of the constitution in which Japan renounces having an army for offensive purposes.
A new party is on the rise, the Japan Restoration Party set up by the mayor of Osaka, with a nationalist foreign affairs agenda. The present government, for once, is not led by the LDP but by a very weak and enfeebled Japanese Democratic Party under its leader, Yoshihido Noda. He is responsible for the current mess.
The Senkaku are a group of small islands (the largest measures four square kilometres), and were the property of a Japanese family. Their status was deliberately left unclear by Zhou Enlai (then Chinese premier) in 1972, at the talks for normalisation between China and Japan. At the time, Zhou Enlai said that the issue was to be left for future generations to solve.
They are inhabited, but there are rumours that they have natural gas (energy is a crucial problem for both countries). The right wing governor of Tokyo, Shintato Hishihara, raised 18 million dollars to buy the island from the owner as a demonstration of patriotism.
In China, this would probably have been considered bizarre. In a bid to appear stronger than Hishihara, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda nationalised three of them for 26 million dollars (making the owner happy). More brilliantly, he forgot to tell Chinese leader Hu Jintao when they met at a conference in Vladivostok, and Hu only learnt the following day from newspapers that the Diaoyu had been nationalised.
Since then, bilateral trade, which amounts to 326 billion dollars, has come to a halt, just as in a global economic slowdown. It is a fact that China has shown extraordinary aggressiveness, which has left many surprised. But the Pandora's box that Noda has now opened is called UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) established in 1994 (which, by the way, the United States has not yet ratified). Thanks to several other little island and rocks, Japan has an exclusive maritime zone of 4.5 million square kilometres. China, which has a longer coastline than Japan, has only 880,000 square kilometres. Add to this that Japan is the strongest ally of the United States in Asia, and that Washington is pursuing a policy of containment of China in Asia (by 2016, 60% of the U.S. fleet will be close to Chinese waters), and it would be difficult to have a different view in Beijing.
For so long as the status of the Diaoyu is open, UNCLOS will still be open to interpretations and negotiations. And now, thanks to the internal game of power among Japanese politicians, the search for global governance becomes even more distant …
Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.