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'Wrong' Island(S) Iced T?


To carry forward their legacy, China and Japan must conduct a dialogue to sort out the East China Sea dispute. War isn’t the answer!
AMIR HOSSAIN | Issue Dated: February 23, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Superpowers China and Japan |Air Defense Identification Zone | World War II |

With every passing day, dispute between two global superpowers – China and Japan – in the East China Sea, over a group of unpopulated islands (Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu in China, and Tiaoyutai Islands in Taiwan), seems to be heading in the wrong direction. As such, continued souring of diplomatic relations between the world’s second and third-largest economies is only becoming more a matter for public debate.

Experts claim that the bond between China and Japan has never appeared more delicate in the past couple of years. Some even compare the current China and Japan equation to that between Germany and Britain during the pre-World War I days. Both nations have become impatient over issues like territorial dispute, claims and counter-claims over history and re-emerging nationalism. Consequently, the world is left wondering what the outcome of such increased politically-motivated anxiety levels will be. To the extent that the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, has even forethought a war in Asia. In a global security conference in Munich (Germany) on February 2, 2014, Kissinger pointed out, “Asia is more in a position of 19th-century Europe, where military conflict is not ruled out. Between Japan and China, the issue for the rest of us is that neither side be tempted to rely on force to settle the issue.” But whether these two superpowers can afford costs of war during a time when the whole world is still learning to walk after being crippled by a financial crisis, is the moot point.

Mass protests in the People’s Republic of China broke out in September 2012 when the Japanese government purchased three islands (belonging to the disputed cluster) from a private owner. The difference of opinion arose as Tokyo currently controls the islands, but Beijing has been demanding ownership of the territory since 1972, quoting “Documentary evidence prior to the First Sino-Japanese War”. In late November last year, China announced that it was introducing air traffic restrictions in the region, called the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), whereby all aircraft entering the zone would need to take necessary permission from Chinese authorities. This was a natural challenge thrown by China – and Japan wasn’t one to be amused with such an ‘assumed authority’! How did Shinzo Abe, the Japanese PM, retaliate? The following month, He paid a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine – a site built to honour war criminals amongst Japan's war dead in the last December has strained the Sino-Japanese relation further

Observers claim that China is trying its best to use all powers to gain a strong foothd in that region, primarily because it is a destination popular for rich natural resources – especially oil and gas.

China and Japan got expressive about their emotions at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days back. Shockingly, Japan's PM compared the current sour relationship between his government and China with the Anglo-German tension in the run up to the First World War. Abe warned China to contain its aggression and limit “Military expansion in Asia”. He also added that “If peace and stability were shaken in Asia, the knock-on effect for the entire world would be enormous.” And as if offering a verbal retaliation, China was not silent. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the island dispute was “Created by the Japanese side.” The Chinese authorities present compared the Japanese with the German Nazis.

One cannot deny the fact that the Asia Pacific region has become “The most militarised region in the world” in recent years. But having said that, it is important to note that the dispute between China and Japan is not new at all. There have been two wars in recent centuries known as the Sino-Japanese wars. The First Sino-Japanese War happened long back during 1894-1895 to win control over Korea. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) took place in and around World War II. Over time, both nations have understood the need to help each other – for both of them to become real super economic powers.
Consequently, both nations have become economically connected and their total trade exchanges have touch $334 billion (in 2012). More so, China is the major export and import destination for Japan. For Japan, the percentage of total exports to and imports from China constitute 18 per cent and 21 per cent of its total exports and imports respectively. But since 2012, this symbiotic relationship has received a major setback due to ongoing conflicts between the nations. In the first half of 2013, the Sino-Japanese trade (value) plunged 10.8 per cent y-o-y to $147 billion. The decline can be explained to be a consequence of a sluggish growth in China, but rising anti-Japanese sentiments in China cannot be ignored either.

Surprisingly, even Chinese television has been flooded by anti-Japanese programmes. Although the second Sino-Japanese War ended way back in 1945, Chinese people are still finding the war hard to forget. A Chinese television series called the ‘Anti-Japanese Knight’ has been trying to spread a message that assassination of people is welcomed if the enemies are “Japanese devils.” A Chinese weekly newspaper called Southern Weekly exposed that around 70 anti-Japanese TV series were telecasted in China in 2012. As per a 2013 joint survey conducted by a Japanese NGO (Genron NPO) and a Chinese daily (The China Daily), 90.1 per cent of Japanese do not have a positive opinion about the Chinese. On the other hand, 92.8 per cent of Chinese shared the same opinion about their neighbours. Interestingly, amongst the Japanese respondents, 53.2 per cent blamed the “Territorial disputes” as the main reason for their negative views about the Chinese. As for the Chinese group of respondents, 77.6 per cent blamed the Japanese of holding geographically flawed opinions.

The relation between China and Japan has become so bitter that authorities in China have even requested American intervention in the foreign policy affair with Japan. It’s however easier said than done for US. Prof. M. Taylor Fravel of the Political Science department at MIT explains, “US is in a really tough position. They want to strengthen the alliance with Japan while maintaining a generally cooperative relationship with China.” However, Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle, Commander, Pacific Air Forces and Air Component Commander for US Pacific Command, has severally criticised Japan by saying that “The rise of Germany and what occurred between UK in particular and Germany, and what happened in Europe, I don't draw that comparison at all to what's going on today in the Asia-Pacific. Some of the things, in particular that have been done by Japan; they need to think hard about what is provocative to other nations.” On the other hand, the Obama administration has criticised China over its ‘anti-defence zone’. Mixed views, really.

Japan and China should look back at history to learn how and why no one really wins a war. The only outcome is that it renders warring nations economically obsolete. Perhaps, think tanks on both sides can consider the goods that resulted from their happy association in the past decade and work to forget fast whatever went wrong. A dialogue is what is suggested; perhaps many if the first doesn’t deliver desired peaceful and economically catalysing results. Not war.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017