August 19, 2012 6:34 PM   Subscribe

Please help me understand, or point me to resources that will help me understand, what is going on in the Japan/China Senkaku/Diaoyu dust up: analysis of root causes, ideas about the broader implications, particular reasons why this is so fraught, &c. Thanks.
posted by davidjmcgee to Law & Government (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a basic point, though it's unlikely you aren't aware, Japan conquered most of China and other parts of East Asia during World War II and the preceding years and did things in China like test biological weapons on the populace. Obviously this makes for a bit of tension in general in China-Japan relations.
posted by XMLicious at 6:44 PM on August 19, 2012

To expand on XMLicious' point, the Sino-Japanese war started in the mid-1890s, so there's a good amount of relatively recent history here.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:03 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: Here's a BBC backgrounder.

On the Chinese side, beyond the cultural memory of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, modern historiography focuses on the "unequal treaties" period, in which the declining Manchu empire was subject to various annexations, reparations and other restrictions from foreign powers. As a result, there's a strand of Chinese foreign policy devoted to undoing some of the most painful bits of those treaties (e.g. the negotiated handover of Hong Kong and Macau) and a strain of unofficial nationalist activism that goes further in seeking to right perceived wrongs.

Neither country's government particularly wants to push the issue of these islands' sovereignty right now, and it's hard to imagine that Beijing is happy with random crowds of protestors smashing up Japanese cars (including police cars) in various Chinese cities.

That's why it's fraught: it's not the usual choreographed regional sabre-rattling, but instead a series of actions and counter-actions by private individuals that may compel state actions.
posted by holgate at 7:04 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: The U.S. Institute of Peace has a decent background primer on the South China Sea disputes, including a summary of the claims, but it's from 1996. Another backgrounder is from 2008. Here is also a pretty simplistic/straight forward backgrounder type article from earlier this month.

There is a lot of natural resources in the area, which has led to ongoing tensions (e.g. India/Vietnam energy cooperation that China opposes). The recent tensions seem to have flared when Japan revealed plans to nationalize some of the islands, trying to gain more control over them. Then China announced earlier this summer that they were going to be doing regular patrols in the area. Meanwhile, the Taiwan legislature voted to beef up their military presence on Taiping Island in the Spratleys.

This is not the first time that tensions have flared up for one reason or another. China has been pushing their claim pretty hard for years (potentially trying to clear a path for their blue-water navy into the Pacific). But the latest power-grab by Japan is somewhat unusual, which is probably why things are heating up a bit more than normal. Like others have said, the Japan/China history tends to color all kinds of things (see for example the Japanese history textbook revisions in 2005 and the protests that were sparked by them).
posted by gemmy at 7:27 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would like to find out more about the background of this as well. But don't forget that the Japanese rightwing conception of WWII is that they were trying to help their Asian neighbors (mostly China) modernize, and the western powers got jealous and decided to nuke them.

This is in contrast to the general Japanese conception of WWII, which is something along the lines of "We were just hanging out doing nothing, then the US nuked us."
posted by zachawry at 8:04 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: The Senkaku Islands are located in the East China Sea, not the South China Sea. The South China Sea disputes are unrelated to the Senkaku Islands. The Economist has good ongoing coverage of the Senkaku Islands disputes going back several years.
posted by euphorb at 8:48 PM on August 19, 2012

There is energy in the East China Sea too--natural gas.

Both South and East China Sea look to be future hot spots for future international conflicts, and I think I'm really understating the case.
posted by eye of newt at 10:28 PM on August 19, 2012

future hot spots for the future! (Ugh)
posted by eye of newt at 10:29 PM on August 19, 2012

Part of this most recent dust up has been the antics of Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, and first rate ass. He has been all about making Japanese ownership of the island chain an official thing, and he is, regrettably, a major voice in Japanese politics. Given the history in the region, there is pretty much nothing Japan could do that wouldn't prompt protests from other countries in the region.

The reporting is pretty interesting. I caught a bit of this on CNN International, where they referred to the islands by their Chinese name, then mentioned they were called the Senkaku Islands in Japan. Being pretty much surrounded by Japanese media, I was kind of surprised, as they are never referred to as anything other than part of Japan here.

To make matters even more fun, there's also squabbling between South Korea and Japan about Takeshima/Dokdo, an even more insignificant island further north. On the news just now, they reported one of the candidates for S.K. president said the matter will be resolved if Japan accepts reality. So, no, there won't be any amicable resolution to any of this any time soon.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:14 AM on August 20, 2012

Taiwan just announced that they will be holding live-fire military exercises on Taiping Island in September, and that their Legislative Yuan will be sending lawmakers to the island to do "inspections." Both those things should anger China (albeit probably to a lesser degree than it would have before President Ma's cross-Strait deals lately). So no, it doesn't look like this will die down anytime soon.
posted by gemmy at 8:25 AM on August 20, 2012

Best answer: I just attended a lecture series where this issue became a huge bone of contention among the Chinese attendees. In a nutshell, the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands have no real value in terms of cultural heritage or history of human settlement. Mostly they are islets and rocks, and other than a modern Japanese village in recent times, they've never had any human population. China's claim is based on a couple of maps (one of which dates to the 1920s), one line from a historical document which notes that the imperial embassy to the Ryukyu Kingdom used one of the islands as a navigational aid when making the sea voyage, and a license granted by the Chinese emperor to pick medicinal grasses there.

What this boils down to is the manipulation of nationalist sentiment for financial gain, at least on the Chinese side. There is no reason that any Chinese individual should care about these islands; they're remote, they're tiny, only one of them has any fresh water, no one has ever lived there and no one ever will, and the notion that they're somehow integral to modern China is absurd. But by painting this as an attempt by Japan to steal what belongs to China, the central government strikes deep-rooted anxiety about China's history of foreign domination and humiliation, especially at Japan's hands. This tactic ensures that individual Chinese people will both take the dispute personally and support any measures used to "reclaim" the islands. I saw a Chinese law professor get so angry that a Japanese law professor even dared discuss the issue from Japan's perspective that he turned bright red and started yelling a little.

Oddly, Japan takes a similar position on Senkaku that Korea takes on Dokdo: because there is no dispute (e.g., Japan believes that the islands are clearly Japanese, so there's no argument, right you guys?), there is nothing to discuss, and no reason to (for instance) take the dispute before the ICJ or the PCA for resolution. It's hard to know who would win in such a dispute - while neither side has a particularly strong claim to the islands, Japan is the power currently in control, and it seems that in the claimed 500 years of sovereignty China asserts it never approached anything like Japan's modern control over the islands. It's notable that Tokyo has banned all development or exploitation of the islands, whether in an attempt to mollify China or because it fears that it could lose them one day it's hard to say.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:22 AM on August 20, 2012

Foreign Policy's The Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012
posted by gen at 10:28 PM on August 20, 2012

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