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    Greater China
     Sep 29, 2012

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China pushes back against Japan
By Peter Lee

China's strategy on the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkakus as Japan calls them, appears to reflect careful calculation of risk and reward by the Beijing leadership, rather than the spasm of counterproductive nationalism sometimes described in the Western press. As a matter of equity, China has a pretty strong claim on the Senkakus. As a matter of geopolitics, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is not holding as weak a hand as one might think.

This is something that the administration of US President Barack Obama, to its chagrin, knows well.

Careful readers of The Japan Times (presumably including


strategists in Beijing) may remember this passage from August 17, 2010:
The Obama administration has decided not to state explicitly that the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japan's control but claimed by China, are subject to the Japan-US security treaty, in a shift from the position of George W Bush, sources said Monday. The administration of Barack Obama has already notified Japan of the change in policy, but Tokyo may have to take countermeasures in light of China's increasing activities in the East China Sea, according to the sources. [1]
The Japanese "countermeasure" occurred less than three weeks later, on September 8, 2010, when Japan's ambitious minister of the interior, Seiji Maehara, instructed the coast guard to turn over the captain of a Chinese fishing boat to prosecutors for trial under Japanese law for ramming a pair of coast-guard vessels while trying to evade them near the Senkakus.

The rest is "contain China" history, as the spat escalated to a crisis in Sino-Japanese relations and lip service in favor of Japan's rights to the Senkakus became an important element of US East Asian policy and justification for the Obama administration's pivot into Asia.

Discreet silence also played a role, when the United States declined to contradict Maehara (by this time foreign minister) when he claimed, perhaps untruthfully, that he had obtained assurances that the Senkakus were covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. [2] [3]

However, US enthusiasm for using the Senkaku dispute as a useful diplomatic lever appears to be reaching its limit.

Two major US dailies, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, recently weighed in with reviews of the history of the islands that may cause the Japanese government some heartburn. Nicholas Kristof turned his NYT column over to a Taiwanese scholar, Han Yishaw, to lay out China's historical claims to the islands. [4]

The LA Times' Barbara Demick also looked skeptically at the Japanese provenance of the Senkakus with a piece describing the research of scholar Unryu Suganuma, who found several references in Japanese government documents describing the Chinese character of the islands. [5]

A glance at a map confirms the impression that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are in Taiwan's backyard, and Japanese efforts to claim them are almost as risible as China's infamous South China Sea-swallowing nine-dash line.

Japan's claim to incontestable sovereignty over the islands goes back no further than its seizure, together with Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, from the Qing empire in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, and not being forced to give them back in the post-World War II muddle.

The "spoils of war" argument, aka we got 'em and by golly we're gonna keep 'em approach, is an awkward one for Japan. It would dearly like to get back four islands on the southern end of an archipelago stretching between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Hokkaido, which are now occupied by Russia as heir to the Soviet Union's spoils of war.

The short form of this imbroglio is the "Kurile Islands dispute", but the two southernmost islands are more Hokkaido-esque, and Russia has signaled a willingness to give them up. The two more northerly islands are bona fide members of the Kurile chain. Russia wants to keep them. Japan wants them. Awkwardly for Japan, in 1956 it promised to surrender its claims to these two islands if a formal peace treaty were concluded.

Given this unfavorable position, Japan must contest the "spoils of war" argument and rely on emotive, historical claims to the islands - the exact opposite of its position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The "exercised sovereignty" argument also provides no comfort to Japan in its dispute with South Korea over the Dokdo Islands (Takeshima to the Japanese). After the conclusion of World War II, the United States supported the historical Japanese claims to the islands but declined to put their defense within the scope of the US-Japan Joint Security Treaty.

Since 1991, the main island has been home to a family of South Korean octopus fishermen and about three dozen Republic of Korea Coast Guard, fishery, and lighthouse personnel. President Lee Myung-bak has visited, as well as thousands of South Korean tourists who take a US$250 ferry trip to the island.

In July 2008, the administration of then-US president George W Bush acknowledged South Korean control over the islands by designating them as ROK territory.

Therefore, Japan's attempts to hold on to the Senkakus on the principle that their effective de facto control, by itself, constitutes de jure sovereignty undermines its arguments on Dokdo and the Kuriles. This inconsistency, one might assume, does not make an ironclad case to the United States to encourage a regional confrontation over Japanese dismay over Chinese pretensions to the rocks.

This year, the Japanese government is also facing a cannier and better-prepared PRC government than the flustered and panicky regime it confronted in 2010.

At that time, Beijing overreacted verbally and administratively and made the mistake of intervening as a government to disrupt trade with Japan to retaliate for the threat to put the skipper of the offending Chinese fishing vessel, Captain Zhan Qixiong, on trial in a Japanese court.

It tried to package its moves to pressure Japan as enforcement of trade regulations, particularly in the wild and wooly rare-earths business, but this was seen as a distinction without a difference, and the PRC was widely condemned by foreign governments and media. As a public relations bonus, China also stood accused of threatening the free world's full enjoyment of iPads and green energy and, indeed, attempting to bring America's high-tech defense industries to heel by exploiting its dominance over precious rare-earth oxides.

The ruckus over export and import restrictions - and the possibility of retaliation - also threatened China's access to the global free-trade regime, a critical matter given the its reliance on exports for growth and social stability. Beyond the threat of bilateral retaliation, there was the possibility that the issue would internationalize, with some sort of coordinated sanction against China.

This year, things are different.

When the Japanese right wing (which feels it got shortchanged by government appeasers who released Captain Zhan in 2010) served up its latest provocation - the campaign by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to purchase the Senkakus - the central government tried to defuse the situation by purchasing the islands itself.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government decided to make an issue of it, apparently to demonstrate to Japan's elite the high cost of pursuing an agenda of confrontation with the PRC over the pretext of the Senkakus.

As usual, Beijing is staying away from anything that might be construed as a direct military threat to the Japanese forces arrayed near the Senkakus.

Indeed, its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (originally Ukraine's Varyag, then repurposed as a floating casino and now destined to become an instantaneous and expensive artificial reef if it ever attempts naval operations against the United States or Japan), entered service on September 25. However, it is not going anywhere near the Senkakus and will need years and billions of yuan before it is a viable military air-operations platform.

Out of consideration for its key North Asia ally, the United States has declined to follow through on its previous intention to treat the Senkakus as it did the Dokdo and place them outside the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta affirmed that an attack on the Senkakus would evoke a US military response on behalf of Japan.

However, the fact that Beijing apparently has no intention of attacking the Senkakus has understandably given more weight to Panetta's statement that the United States has no position on the conflicting sovereignty claims and hopes that the Chinese and Japanese governments will work out the issue peaceably.

This time around, the Chinese government is not only avoiding inflammatory moves that would internationalize the dispute; in important ways, it is even de-bilateralizing it. In contrast to 2010, China is not directly interfering in foreign trade with Japan. Instead, Japanese interests inside China have been threatened directly by Chinese citizens, albeit egged on by their government.

This is a distinction that has been carefully drawn in Sino-Japanese confrontations over the past century and is probably well understood by current strategists.

Before World War II, "boycott" was an all-purpose descriptor for two different activities: what we would now call a popular boycott of people declining to buy certain goods, and also what is now called official government economic harassment instituted by fiat.

It was a matter of some anxiety for the Chinese government to draw a line between the two, particularly during the "Great Boycott" in 1931 protesting the Japanese incursion into Manchuria (whose anniversary by coincidence occurred on September 19, at the height of this year's anti-Japanese rumpus), since the Japanese government at the time was inclined to engage in real warfare to retaliate for what it deemed economic warfare by China.

Today, with the anti-Japanese measures framed as a popular boycott, as long as the Chinese demonstrations stay away from red lines as defined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations - which obligates the PRC to uphold the inviolability of the premises, personnel and property, both official and personal, of the Japanese diplomatic mission - then offenses against Japanese persons and property fall into the black hole of Chinese domestic civil and criminal law.

Continued 1 2 

Asia poll prospects make for choppy seas (Sep 27, '12)

US pivots toward trouble in West Pacific (Sep 26, '12)

Why Qatar wants to invade Syria

2. China's security boss surveys Hindu Kush

3. US 'pivots' on the Philippines

4. Security Council reform gains traction

5. Republican extremes threaten Sino-US ties

6. Joe McCarthy would understand

7. The Ganges: All plan, no action

8. The weaknesses of 'national security'

9. Afghanistan prognosis looks gloomier

10. Hawk, dove, butterfly, bee

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Sep 27, 2012)


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