China 1, Japan 0. Allies beware

NAPSNet Policy Forum

Recommended Citation

"China 1, Japan 0. Allies beware", NAPSNet Policy Forum, February 21, 2013,

Go to the weekly report for 21st February 2013

Japan has a talent for border disputes: it has one with all of its neighbours: the Senkakus or Diaoyutai with China (and with Taiwan for good measure); Takeshima/Tokdo with both Koreas and the southern Kurils/Northern Territories. All  these disputes share important qualities that should be remembered when governments are formulating policy responses to the latest flare-up, especially friends of Japan.

First, all three are derived from the period of Japanese colonial expansion which was ended by the Soviet entry into the Pacific War at the end of 1945.

Second, all three have considerable strategic significance, apart from any economic and EEZ issues.

Thirdly, all three provide oxygen to volatile nationalist claims on both sides of the disputes. All of the governments concerned articulate these themes with greater or lesser fervour, depending on circumstances. The good news, though, is that all the governments involved have found occasion to ratchet down their own nationalist enthusiasms and to make life more difficult for its non-government nationalists – when it suits them.

Lastly, all three issues are in fact soluble using principles and approaches that have worked well in other circumstances – if the political will is present – by joint development and fishing zones, and separating out the sovereignty issue from others aspects.

In the last few months China’s sometimes dangerous gunboat diplomacy has succeeded in one of its undoubted goals: to make clear to the world that there is a territorial dispute over the Senkakus/Diaoyu, whatever a diplomatically wrong-footed Japan might say. That dispute is related to a more serious one – the “midline” in the East China Sea between China and Okinawa. Look at satellite photos of the region and a line of Chinese oil and gas rigs – for exploration and for production – are visible. Japanese nationalist websites have been wont to show schematics of dastardly Chinese drilling diagonally “under the line” under the seabed to steal Japanese gas reserves. Yet the Chinese have been punctilious to locate all their rigs to the west of the line that Japan claims marks the midline between the Ryukyus and the Chinese coast. And that is a long way west of where China says the midline should be, based on the principles of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea which would focus on the location of the Okinawan Trough as the edge of China’s continental shelf. Japan has refused to admit a dispute in the East China Sea, and is not happy at the thought of UNCLOS principles being applied to its historically-based claim.

Whatever the merits of the Japanese and Chinese claims, there is a dispute, and Japan’s refusal to recognize its existence is simply untenable. Japan’s obduracy works to China’s advantage.

China 1, Japan 0. Again.

-Richard Tanter, NAPSNet contributor

nautilus-logo-smallThe NAPSNet Policy Forum provides expert analysis of contemporary peace and security issues in Northeast Asia. As always, we invite your responses to this report and hope you will take the opportunity to participate in discussion of the analysis.

One thought on “China 1, Japan 0. Allies beware

  1. Yikes! Mr. Tanter certainly has internalized the Central Propaganda Department’s position without bothering to study the history of any of these disputes. To blame, as he does, the “Four Northern Islands” dispute with Russia on “colonialism” truly is puzzling . . . prior to September 1945, no Russian ever lived on those islands, and no Russian or Soviet state ever claimed them. And the Senkaku Islands claim was first laid by the Taipei regime in 1971, Peking shortly followed suit to keep up with the Nationalists . . . Anyone who understands seabed demarcations under the UNCLOS is aware that the Okinawa trough is a feature of the continental shelf upon which the Ryukyus and Japan both sit, and does not mark a boundary of the shelf. Under the UNCLOS, Japan and China share the shelf. As for the history of island ownership, suffice it to say that under both the UNCLOS and customary international maritime law, China never developed the Senkakus, never populated them, never claimed them and raised no objection to Japan’s claim, and consequently cannot be said to have had any title to the islands. Japan, on the other hand, claimed the islands in 1895, populated them for four decades in the last century, developed and administered the islands. At the conclusion of the Pacific War, the Allies declared that post-war Japanese territorial sovereignty would be limited to the four home islands ans “such minor islands as we shall determine” – the Allies determined that the Senkakus were Japanese, and the United States administered them under “residual Japanese sovereignty” for 27 years, until the Okinawa Reversion in 1972. Moreover, from 1895 through 1971, both Chinese regimes treated the islands as sovereign Japanese territory. They are listed as such in ALL Chinese maps, official and otherwise, Nationalist and Communist, up to 1971.

    But don’t take my word for it . . . read the Central Intelligence Agency’s Intelligence Report CIA/BGI GR 71-9 of May 1971 entitled “The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Oil Under Troubled Waters?”

    AS for countries with “a talent for border disputes”, both China and the Russian Federation outdo Japan in that department . . . Ask India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea about China. Ask Georgia, Finland, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Norway . . .

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