Flames billow up into the sky from the charred shell of a black Honda. The owner walks away, guilty of having just set fire to his own car. Behind the man is a sign written in Chinese exclaiming “Defeat the Japanese Demons.” This is just one of many scenes capturing the zeitgeist of the riots last September in China that occurred after the Japanese government nationalized three uninhabited islands that lie off the coasts of Japan, China, and Taiwan. Paying a little over 2 billion yen ($26 million) for the privilege, the government assumed financial ownership on September 11, 2012 over the desolate rocks that, together with five other isles, comprise the Senkaku Islands. The archipelago sits a mere ninety-three miles from Japan, one hundred and five miles from Taiwan, and two hundred and ten miles from China. Despite being the farthest away from China, the fervor it invoked among Chinese citizens could not have hit closer to home. Cars were burned, factories destroyed –– anything bearing a Japanese name became a fair target. Even though the riots genuinely reflected the strong anti-Japanese sentiment of participants, the intensity and timing came at an interesting time. In the heat of national elections in both China and Japan, the riots diverted attention away from important domestic issues in both countries, capturing their respective national dialogues. The territorial dispute had quickly become a valuable political tool for the region
China, Japan, and Taiwan have feuded intermittently since 1972 over which country maintains the proper territorial claim to the Senkaku Islands. Historically, the islands lacked any concrete territorial claimants and in 1895 were formally annexed by Japan. After World War II, the still-uninhabited islands came under the control of the United States during the occupation of Japan. Under US control, the islands were administratively lumped together with the Ryukyu Islands, another archipelago stretching south from Japan’s mainland. Throughout the occupation, the US military used one of the islands for missile tests while also paying rent to the island’s proper owner. From the perspective of the United States, this cemented the idea that at least some of the islands were private property that fell under the territorial rights of Japan. Control over the Ryukyu and Senkaku islands was formally returned to the Japanese government in 1972, though China and Taiwan took issue with this transfer of sovereignty. Both China and Taiwan had accepted the United States’ control over the islands during occupation, and it was only after sovereignty was transferred to Japan that both countries expressed grievances. While the handover was made successfully and without modification, the exchange marked the beginning of the dispute and China’s entrance into the conflict.
The Chinese tell the story of the Senkaku Islands differently than their Japanese counterparts. Deep-rooted differences are even demonstrated in their names for the islands. In China, the islands are known as the Diaoyu islands and are referred to exclusively by that name. The Chinese government claims that the islands were associated with their territory as far back as 1372, a historical and territorial claim that is referenced in numerous Chinese travelogues and books. The Chinese claim relies on the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. According to the text of the treaty, “the island of Formosa [Taiwan], together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa should be ceded to Japan.” However, this language leaves ambiguous which islands “belong” to Taiwan, as such important details were left to the consensus of the signatory nations. Thus, the Chinese claim that the Diaoyu Islands do not belong to the historical area of Formosa and therefore have always belonged to China.
While these countries’ claims to the islands differ, their political and economic interests do not. In 1969, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East published a report suggesting an abundance of oil and gas reserves near the islands. In 1971, one year ahead of the scheduled handoff of the islands from the United States to Japan, China protested the impending transfer, defending their claim through the Treaty of Shimonoseki and attempting to demonstrate that unclosed loopholes – however narrow or ridiculous – represent economic opportunities. However, despite Chinese protests, the transfer went ahead as planned. Since then, Japan has maintained an effective administrative control over the islands and, until recently, has avoided territorial conflicts.
At first blush it would seem China entered into the dispute with an eye on the island’s supposed oil and natural gas reserves, yet due to the dispute, no additional scientific research has been performed to verify the claims in the original report published over forty years ago. In fact most of the islands’ current commercial appeal is related to their value as an abundant fishing area. Although the islands are generally considered to fall within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, a deal was struck to allow Chinese and Taiwanese fishermen rights to fish in the zone as long as they agreed not to bring the islands into their own exclusive economic zones. This agreement, however, is purely focused on trade and does not address issues related to sovereignty. It has been reported that fishing trips originating in China are unfeasible because of the distance from the islands to the mainland. The same is not true for Taiwanese and Japanese fishermen who frequent the area. Given the islands’ isolation and disputed status not much else besides fishing is economically feasible; the islands are a haven for rare mole species and albatross, but not human activity. The island’s political value thus stands apart from their economic value
Undeterred by the lack of economic incentives, both Japan and China continue to devote part of their busy foreign policy agendas to these islands. For both countries, the dispute over the islands has increasingly become a way of providing political cover for important domestic issues. In order to achieve this, both countries openly admonish the other, hoping to gain popular support. By focusing internal dissent outwards towards a common enemy, domestic dissent in these countries is essentially nullified and in its places comes solidarity centered around a common entity—real or imagined. This, in essence, is a “fake” nationalism, or rather nationalism as a response to a perceived injustice. In fact, major incidents regarding the islands are a relatively recent phenomenon and have become an increasingly frequent media mainstay on both sides of the dispute since 2006. This rise in media coverage can be correlated with a number of important domestic issues in both countries in recent years.
Perhaps not coincidentally, last year’s anti-Japanese riots coincided with Chinese national elections. Members of the National People’s Congress, China’s only national legislative body, were elected over a five-month cycle by local congresses for five-year terms. During the time of the riots it was unclear who would become the new leader of the Communist Party causing great concern amongst citizens. The Chinese government began focusing its media coverage more heavily on the islands and began using increasingly strong rhetoric when talking about the islands. In 2006, a first group of activists set sail to the islands from mainland China but were ultimately turned away. The local media exalted the crew upon their return. Four years later, a Chinese fishing boat collided with a boat from the Japanese Coast guard, causing the crew to be taken into Japanese custody. The Chinese government met this action against its citizens sternly, with government officials deriding Japan’s actions publicly. Over time, repeated and emotional Chinese responses to an insignificant Japanese threats on these remote islands created a powder keg of anti-Japanese sentiment; dissent was thus focused externally towards Japan while also framing the government in a positive light as “defenders” of the islands. When the islands were eventually nationalized, the dispute was packaged in a way that intentionally created public outrage.
Japan is also prone to the dangers of fake nationalism, albeit in a slightly different way. In the case of Japan, fake nationalism can be seen as more of a politicking tool rather than public misdirection. Last September, the government’s sudden nationalization of three of the islands created an upswell of support for the dispute among Japanese nationals. During Japan’s general election three months later, the Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory over the incumbent government, the Democratic Party of Japan. This victory also secured the Liberal Democratic Party’s pick for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Part of Abe’s allure to Japanese voters was his stance on the Senkaku Islands, which, in the run-up to the election, he called Japan’s “inherent territory.” After being elected, Abe went even further to claim that the Senkaku Islands “clearly belong to Japan.” While a variety of factors played into Abe’s take-all victory, his stance on the dispute allowed him to take on an even bigger political battle.
Elected once before in 2006, Abe is known for his particularly conservative views on national defense. During his first term, Abe upgraded the Ministry of Defense to “full ministry status,” bringing it in line with other powerful ministries such as justice and foreign affairs. Particularly noteworthy is Abe’s stance on Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which forbids the country from maintaining a standing army – a legislative vestige of post-war occupation. Throughout his career, Abe has argued for a constitutional amendment to eliminate this particular restriction. Such an amendment would allow Japan to resolve any disputes it has by means of force. Any amendment to the constitution, however, requires a two-thirds majority of the legislature before it can be ratified. By taking a popular stance on the Senkaku Islands, Abe is attempting to build up the support needed before he can propose such an amendment.
Coincidentally, Abe’s call for a “bold review” of Article 9 coincided with the first major incident concerning the islands in 2006. It is no accident that for his current term Abe made his hardline stance on the islands a major focal point of the campaign. By focusing on the threat of Chinese aggression, Abe was able to both build up support for his campaign as well as shape the national dialogue around the Article 9 issue in his favor.
While Taiwan does play a role in the dispute over the islands, recent actions have signaled the government may be willing to partially concede the issue. In recent negotiations with Japan, the Taiwanese government stated it will not claim the islands in an upcoming fishery agreement. Taiwan claims that its stance on the islands remains unchanged, but in order to disencumber dialogue, Taiwan has forgone placing that claim in this specific agreement. The action is a radical departure from Taiwan’s previous rhetoric over the islands and is even more striking considering the hostile confrontations between both countries’ coast guards in recent years. It is reported that these recent concessions were made with the hope of receiving fishing rights in waters close to the Senkaku Islands, which the Japanese government has said it’s willing to do.
Apart from the domestic implications of the conflict for Japan and China, in many ways the Senkaku dispute is just another wrinkle to be ironed out in Sino-Japanese relations. It is no coincidence that China’s increasingly harsh rhetoric regarding the islands comes on the heels of its emergence as a global superpower while at the same time Japan struggles to maintain its economic footing. In 2010, China surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world. Based solely on its handling of the islands, it would seem China is using its foreign policy agenda to position itself as the dominant player in the region, flexing its muscles in front of old adversaries. This is just one conflict of many. In fact, China has numerous ongoing conflicts with other countries in the region over territory ranging from underwater rocks to small tropical reefs. Japan is also no stranger to territorial disputes and maintains longstanding conflicts with South Korea and Russia over islands that are actually populated. These ostensibly unimportant rocks in the ocean are in fact divisive issues in regional politics.
By understanding these issues and how these countries use them to achieve certain goals, we can predict how future conflicts in the region might play out. Understanding also allows us to study the social ramifications of these disputes and how they function not just as ways for countries to exhibit international strength, but also to achieve important domestic and foreign policy goals. Whether it’s to win an election or control public opinion, how much might a nation pay for that privilege?