Rocks in the Pacific
The Diaoyu (if you’re Chinese) or Senkaku (if you’re Japanese) Islands are little more than rocks that lie to the east of China, the northeast of Taiwan, and relatively far to the southwest of Japan. Although the Japanese formally annexed them in 1895, the only time they have been inhabited was by the workers at a small fish processing plant that operated from 1900-1940.
The US occupied the islands after the end of World War II and returned them to Japan in 1971. Around this time, Taiwan and China both began to publicly claim the islands. While China and Taiwan said maintaining historical territorial integrity was their main motivation for the claims, it probably isn’t a coincidence that the year before the US returned the island to Japan, a report was published speculating that the vicinity might contain oil and gas deposits. Since 1971, Japan has prohibited any exploration for oil and gas in the area. The last thing they want is confirmation of the islands’ value.
The islands also lie along a major Asian shipping route and their surrounding oceans contain plentiful fisheries.
On August 15, 2012, a flotilla of ships carrying Taiwanese and Chinese activists left Hong Kong. As they approached the islands, the Japanese authorities stopped them. However, five activists jumped out of the boats and made it ashore. Everyone was soon thereafter arrested and deported.
On August 18, Japanese activists responded by going to the islands. Again, the authorities stopped them, but ten disembarked and planted Japanese flags.
This confrontation has led to nationalistic fervor in all three countries; most noticeable were the Mainland Chinese protestors, who destroyed Japanese cars and restaurants over the weekend. It has also led to a hardening of relations between the countries. While both Taiwan and Japan have always had relatively cold relations with China, I believe the split between Taiwan and Japan is a relatively new, frightening development.
But that’s not the only thing to be concerned about. The fight over these islands has led to the rekindling of another island-based drama. Between Japan and South Korea lie the Dokdo (Korean) or Takeshima (Japanese) Islands. Currently Korea administers the islands, but Japan, inspired by its renewed nationalism, has brought the issue up before the International Court of Justice. A Japanese magazine even went so far as to publish a possible plan for how Japan could take the islands from Korea.
Traditionally, the United States has contained any Chinese aspirations for Asian hegemony by maintaining a coalition of small, yet powerful, allies in the region. The most prominent of these are Japan , South Korea, and Taiwan. Each of these countries is militarily dwarfed by China; however, with US military technology, they form a significant force to counterbalance what would otherwise be an overwhelming threat.
And that is why the degradation of relations is so frightening. By creating a climate of conflict, China is starting to fracture the United States’ primary Asia-Pacific geopolitical strategy. China probably doesn’t care about these little rocks in the Pacific, but it is concerned with what has been up to this point a strong containing force against its regional expansion. If China can turn its rivals against one another, it will have a much easier time acquiring resources that, relative to rocks, actually matter. This is basic divide and conquer strategy.
China actually supports Taiwan’s claim to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Of course, they claim Taiwan as well, but it’s important to note their support of the Taiwanese against Japan. If China similarly supported South Korea’s claim against Japan, they could certainly create an awkward situation. It is important to remember that Japan has the most powerful navy in Asia (other than the United States). Therefore, it is in China’s interest to focus most of Korea and Taiwan’s anger towards Japan, which, if you are at all familiar with Asian relations, is quite an easy task.
A more divided non-Chinese Asia would be disastrous for the United States. Acting through this coalition has kept the Chinese contained without a full-scale US military presence in the region. Rising nationalism could lead to demands for the US to support Japan over Korea and Taiwan or vice versa. To manage this situation, America must mediate negotiations over the islands and give all sides favors in exchange for unity. These countries’ governments probably don’t care about the islands, but worry that their people will view them as illegitimate if they don’t fight for their territorial sovereignty. The US will have to find ways for each party to save face and claim victory over the other. China has cracked the wall, now it’s up to the US to repair the damage before the whole apparatus comes crashing down.