“The Problem with Islands:
Long term solutions for the Sengaku-Diaoyu conflict”
The Asia Institute
November 2, 2012
November 2, 2012
Asia Institute & GCS
International Peace Seminar to Commemorate
31st Anniversary of the UN International Day of Peace
The Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) are a set of uninhabited islands not far from Taiwan, the coast of Fujian, People’s Republic of China, and the Japanese island of Yonaguni in Okinawa that have become the site for remarkable dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan. The collision between the Chinese fishing trawler Minjinyu and a Japanese coast guard vessel on the morning of September 7, 2010 (and the subsequent detention and release of the captain of Minjinyu) made a long-brewing dispute over territory into a cause célèbre in China that has taken the form of a series of protests in both China and Japan of a severity not seen in since the Cultural Revolution.
The announcement by the City of Tokyo that it would buy the Senkaku Islands from its private owners, thus conflating private real estate with national territoriality, set off an even more virulent set of protests in China in 2012 that have created a sense of distrust and foreboding in Asia at a time when many looked forward to an age of increasing economic and cultural exchange. 2012 was slated for a series of celebrations to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and the People’s Public of China. All of those events have been cancelled or postponed. In fact, even an innocent conference of comparative literature to which I had been invited was abruptly cancelled. On the Japanese side as well, protests are planned and emotions have run high—a marked contrast to previous demonstrations that were widely ignored in Japan.
As we grapple for an answer to this conflict, we must first and foremost avoid a focus on the reasons given by those individuals participating in the protests. Those emotions are quite real, but in many cases they are the product of complex factors that blend together into a seeming whole. For example, the conflict over these uninhabited islands takes place at a moment of unprecedented economic and technological convergence between Japan and China. The territoriality of these islands where no one lives is being contested at a moment when it has become extremely easy to send money, or talk by Skype, or travel by airplane between Tokyo and Beijing. It seems as if these barren islands are somehow tied directly to the new level of integration taking place in the capitals of these two world powers. We might ask, are the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands a hot issue between China and Japan in spite of the high level of integration, or because of the high level of integration? Are these islands a space into which the new integrated Northeast Asian narrative and all its ambiguities and uncertainties are projected? A play where the unfinished national narratives are played out as a global drama?
There have been times of closer and of more distant relations between China and Japan. But we can say with confidence that on almost every level, the current level of economic, technological manufacturing and even cultural integration between the two nations is unprecedented. Chains for manufacturing and logistics tie the two nations together seamlessly and although there may be some campaigns against the purchases of Japanese automobiles in Beijing, integration and in terms of trade and finance, goes on as before.
So there are multiple reasons why those uninhabited, small islands, Uotsuri (Diaoyu in Chinese), Kitakojima (Beixiaodao) and Minami Kojima (Nanxiaodao) have taken on tremendous symbolic power and threaten to undo much of the progress made in recent years. Some speak of the issue of valuable oil reserves in the vicinity of the islands and also the valuable fishing rights at stake. Such issues are no doubt a factor, but they cannot explain the scale of the response on China’s part.
We need to consider the historical, economic and social factors that have led to the current crisis, and we should do so in a manner that does postulate that the blame lies with one player or the other. The solution to the problem will come when we start to seek for the truth, no matter how inconvenient it may be. And that truth has more to do with the manner in which the societies, the economies, of all nations have been transformed over the last hundred years, and especially in the last ten years. Only with a deeper understanding of underlying issues that impact all of us and lie behind what we witness can we make progress towards a long-term or permanent solution to the crisis.
The history of the conflict
Chinese records from as early as the 14th century refer to this small group of islands as important navigational markers along a well-travelled trade route from the Chinese port of Fuzhou to the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent nation that makes up what is now known as Okinawa and was an important regional player during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Ryukyus maintained a delicate dual client relationship with both Qing Dynasty China and Tokugawa Japan, sending tributary missions to both countries and serving as a bridge between the two cultural and economic realms. In a sense Japan extended its cultural influence into Okinawa and that cultural influence gradually faded into a Chinese sphere of influence. That pre-modern arrangement, however, came to an end when Japan occupied and annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, promptly abolishing the government and making the territory a province. Almost 150 years later, Okinawa remains culturally and economically quite distinct from Japan and features at least six distinct languages that are not mutually intelligible with Japanese or with each other.
The open system of borders that the Ryukyu Kingdom represented was simply intolerable as the process of modernization of the economy and the redefinition of the state started in Japan in the period after the Meiji restoration of 1867. Okinawa was in a sense Japan’s first colony, granted that it incorporated it as a province.
We can see the integration of the Ryukyu Islands as an act akin to the enclosure acts that swept England in the 18th century. In the case of the enclosure acts, the definition of land was transformed into the modern real estate and in that process, the commons that had previously been shared by all farmers in a semi-feudal system were defined as private property. Suddenly, land that poor farmers had had access to for generations was walled off and they were reduced to beggary. This shift in the meaning of land, as brilliantly described in Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, had profound implications for more than farmland; it was the beginning of a radical transformation of all objects into products and goods for consumption that continues to this day at an increasing pace. That revolution in the thinking of a relatively small number of individuals, went on to rework the entirety of England and European society like an ideological “ice nine” that transmogrified everything it touched into a fungible product that can be bought and sold.
It is critical to see Japan’s annexation of Okinawa, and the subsequent history of the Senkaku Islands, within that socio-economic context. That is to say, that the very concept of national borders was radically altered by the economic transformation of the nineteenth century. Although we often think of that transformation as a positive, it brought with it considerably less flexibility with concern to borders and boundaries, and an odd projection of geometry and the absolutes of mathematics onto the rather porous and human interstices between cultural continuums.
As Japan reinvented itself after the Meiji Restoration, the physical borders of Japan, its territory and possessions, became a critical issue for national survival—or at least that was how the situation was perceived. There was no longer any potential for gray area, for the tolerance of a Ryukyu Kingdom, as a gentle archipelago that slowly transitions from one center of cultural production into another. Thus Okinawa could no longer be an ambiguous kingdom with loyalties to both China and Japan; it had to be clearly a province of Japan integrated bureaucratically.
Along that path of transformation, whereby islands were integrated into bureaucratic units and those bureaucratic units were linked directly to the central government, suddenly islands had to snap to the grid. In 1895, following its victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan declared the Senkaku islands to be Japanese in the modern sense of the world and went on to give those islands names in 1900. Those islands were integrated into the Japanese empire at the time, and not Japan proper. The dispute over the island is, to some degree, related to the question of where Japan proper begins.
In the post-war period, the United States occupied Okinawa, and, taking Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa to be a given, agreed in 1969 to return Okinawa to Japan. It was at that point that the Senkaku islands were transferred to Japan in terms of “administrative rights.” The United States clearly avoided the term “sovereignty” when preparing to handover these islands in 1972. The phrase reflects in part the ambiguous status of the Senkaku Islands. The Senkaku Islands were not part of the Ryukyu Kingdom originally. In addition, given the political environment of the Cold War the special proximity of these islands to the People’s Republic of China gave them a special status in the eyes of the United States security establishment, similar to the status of Xiamen off the coast of Taiwan. Perhaps the United States wished to carve out a special political space for those islands.
That phrase “administrative rights” with regards to the islands deserves careful consideration. One might ask what exactly the difference is between “administrative rights” and sovereignty or ownership. In what exact sense does an island belong to a nation and who, ultimately does that nation belong to? The question is enormous, but it is also quite manageable at the same time. Over the last one hundred years an elaborate discipline of maritime boundaries has emerged which is essentially conceptual, but is taken to be extremely concrete and inviolable. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea assumes that the possession of resources and legal regulations over inhabitants start and stop at an absolute line, taken from Euclid’s geometry. But in the material world there is no such line to be found, existing only as a conceptual projection out of legal abstractions. Certainly that line means nothing to tuna, or whales, or even divers for abalone except if they are ensnared in a controversy.
Moreover, some scholars, like Kimie Hara have suggested that the United States imagined that the conflict over the Senkaku islands could serve as a “wedge of containment” that would keep Japan from drifting too close to China, its primary market for goods and services in the pre-war period. Hara suggests that it was part of the Federal government’s long term plan for preserving its status in Japan to create such territorial ambiguities that would encourage Japanese engagement with the United States for the long term. Of course there is considerable doubt has to the degree to the entirety of the American establishment consciously cultivated such potential conflicts. But the possibility certainly cannot be ruled out.
After the end of the Cold War as China increasingly opened up to the world, and increasingly embraced a similar definition of real estate, the significance of the Senkaku Islands increased dramatically. To start with, China become an export-based economy for the first time in its history. In 1972, when the Senkaku Islands were handed over to Japan along with Okinawa, China was at the end of the brutal Cultural Revolution. That event itself was a massive questioning of the very concept of ownership in a nation in which things only belonged to the state.
The Chinese economy was radically domestic and agricultural at that time. Trade was an extremely minor part of the economic system. But the Senkaku Islands became an explosive issue in 2010 (explosive in a sense that they had never been before, even in the midst of Mao Zedong’s denunciations of American and Japanese imperialism) because China has turned to international trade as the primary driving force for its economy over the last twenty years. Suddenly shipping has become critical not only for the products that China ships out around the world, but also to supply raw materials for Chinese manufacturing and even food to feed its growing population. The consequences of this shift, starting with Deng Xiaoping’s moves to globalize China’s economy following a developmental model akin to that of Park Chung Hee of the Republic of Korea, have made the island problems extremely significant.
Suddenly the sea lanes and shipping routes have become critical not only to China’s security, but also to its economy. Whereas the Qing Dynasty shut down trade from the 1670s until the late nineteenth century and Mao did the same for thirty years, today China does not see that turtle defense as an option. Oceans have become more important to China than they have ever been in its history. Moreover, China has taken a great interest in the developing a blue-water navy as part of a recognition of this shift in China’s economic integration with the world via shipping and logistics.
Because of the new importance of oceans for China, the so-called “first island defense line” consisting of the Korean peninsula, Jeju Island, Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines has taken on a vital significance for China. The threats that China perceives in the American so-called “Pacific Pivot” are not abstract, but extremely concrete. Any military activity, even tension, in this line of islands directly off China’s coast could immediately disrupt Chinese trade and in a short period of time lead to massive unemployment, and even starvation. A war would not be necessary to cripple China and cause domestic instability. Thus the possibility of militarizing the Senkaku Islands, or the adjacent islands of Yonaguni and Ishizaki, holds tremendous significance for China.
Of course the memory, whether real, or learned in textbooks, of Japanese imperial policy towards China makes the Japanese claims to the Senkaku Islands seem far more threatening to China than they might appear to outsiders. As an American, I can certainly see the mistakes that Japan may have made in recent years, but in light of America’s rather disturbing policies around the world, I must be humble. In fact, the disagreement about the Senkaku Islands is if anything, a composite of multiple factors: cultural, historical, economic, strategic and geographic.
We should also be aware of the domestic issues within Japan that underlie the recent arguments in Japan for the militarization of the Senkaku Islands. The adjacent islands of Yonaguni and Ishizaki have suffered devastating drops in their populations in recent years, and, in the case of Yonaguni, because it has no high school, many youth leave the island early in life, never to return. For this reason, there is great interest in the area in developing closer relations and exchanges with China and Taiwan, something that the central government has consistently discouraged. At the local level China is not a looming threat, but rather a significant economic opportunity. The people of Yonaguni carry Japanese passports, but they speak their own language, Dunan Munui a language more distant from Japanese than English is from German. The traditional trade routes of the past would naturally tie these islands to Taiwan and the mainland and have been efforts to cement those ties that have been undercut by Tokyo.
Possible approaches to a long-term solution
I believe that the first step towards a resolution of the Senkaku Islands problem requires us to consider carefully the process in economic, cultural and political terms by which Japan and China have been transformed over the last century, and especially over the last twenty years. We must, above all, avoid generalizations and judgments about entire cultures and peoples.
We must avoid statements suggesting that Japanese are imperialistic in nature, or that the Chinese are non-democratic in nature. Such statements only drive us further away from the true causes, displacing real economic, social and political issues. I feel the same way about the arguments that the fight over the Senkaku Islands is merely an effort of the Chinese government to shift domestic discontent over to Japan. Although clearly such political concerns are present in any nation facing an upsurge in emotions, the calculations of politicians are not sufficient to explain the entire process. Any arguments that are reductive and ignore the various economic and social pressures that lead China and Japan to behave in certain ways will give a biased and ultimately dishonest assessment to this conflict.
Going forward, it seems that the most essential point is for us to return to a conception of geography and nationhood that does not encourage these sorts of conflicts over islands. Specifically, we might ask what has changed since a previous age when one Chinese fisherman called the island by one name and a Japanese fisherman by another without any conflicts. What has changed about our concept of the nation and how have we become more inflexible? Why do the borders between nations become so absolutely essential to the nation?
Behind this shift in the perception of borders over the last 150 years we can detect the projection of the absolutes of geometry onto the world of human relations. We want to see the relations between states in an absolute manner, as if there was a clear Japan that starts here and ends there and that Japan is run by Tokyo. But there is no such border. If anything, in terms of the movement of products, there is literally no border between China and Japan today. It is only for humans, not for fish or for television sets, that these borders exist.
Certainly the ecosystem, or even the racial makeup of populations, has nothing to do with this imaginary line. If anything, the reality of technology and globalization is that such borders, such barriers, are increasingly less certain. There are large numbers of people who travel between these two nations and even more circulation between them in terms of goods and information.
Where China really stops and Japan begins is an open question that cannot be so easily resolve d by fiat. China and Japan are increasingly merging together in the technological and IT aspects. Money and capital, information and data, logistics and distribution, all pull the two countries together as a whole. Many Japanese make there home in Beijing and Chinese make there home in Tokyo. And in spite of these trends, or perhaps precisely because of them, we find such economic integration is paired together with confrontation at the local level. It seems as if it is simply unacceptable for the central governments to have China slowly fade into Japan, through the Okinawan archipelago.
Going forward, we should heed the advice of Peter Drucker: “do not focus on problems. Find new horizons.” If we can find a new definition of borders that is more appropriate to the realities of the 21st century, and harken back to the openness of the eighteenth century, we may find a solution to this crisis.