The longer irredentist disputes continue in East Asia, it’s easier just to dismiss the accretion of elite opinions as a huge pile of “He said; She said” testimonies. On the Senkakus, the focus now has shifted from rival Chinese and Japanese claims to a tit-for-tat spat between China and the United States. International Crisis Group‘s Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt blames derelict Chinese politicians for allowing the diplomatic stand-off with Japan to fester.
But the strength to hold back surging nationalism and the courage to invest political capital in such an endeavor is absent in Beijing. China currently has a gaping vacuum in the oversight of its Japan policy, in the context of a delicate power transfer that happens once every decade. In the words of one Chinese scholar; “we don’t know who is in charge of Japan policy, who is trusted, and whose words count.”
Politicians in China are transfixed by domestic politics and their own position in this sensitive shift of power. No one is willing to expend political capital on an explosive foreign policy issue, daunted by the strong and prevailing nationalist sentiment against Japan.
In the past, Chinese leaders were able to reach a reasonable consensus and give clear directives to try to establish better ties with Tokyo – which was an indispensable partner in China’s development. But in the current crisis, policy experts lament that they do not even know the central goal of the government’s Japan policy. Bureaucrats are left to scramble for responses to each incident, and the public to second guess the government’s intentions.
So while Chinese state media is backing off from more inflammatory anti-Japan rhetoric, its tone cannot replace the leadership that is needed to articulate an overall vision for bilateral relations, expand communication, and steer public opinion. Until such leadership and vision materializes, both sides will be left waiting for the next incident to happen, and hoping that they’ll be able to keep tensions from boiling over when it does.
A Chinese think tank singled out the U.S. for unilaterally deciding to grant Japan administration of the Senkakus (via ROK Drop) in 1972.
China says its claim on Diaoyu extends back hundreds of years. Japan says China ceded sovereignty when it lost the Sino-Japanese war in 1895.
Japan’s surrender in World War II clouded the issue again. The islands were administered by the U.S. occupation force after the war. But in 1972 Washington returned them to Japan as part of its withdrawal from Okinawa.
That, says Guo, is where the current troubles begin. “The U.S. handed over the island to Japan for its own purpose during the Cold War. So, personally, I think the U.S. should take the blame for the dispute of Diaoyu island,” he said.
The U.S. says it is not taking a position in the current dispute. But it is treaty bound to defend its ally Japan. Adding to the tension, the U.S. and Japan have started joint war games. It is a routine annual event but this year the aim is to seize an island.
I’m going to take another optimistic slant on this, and I’m sure I sound crazy. These legal and historical issues have been the exclusive bailiwick of East Asian-located expat blogs for years. The arcane details of the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, the 1953 Korean War Armistice agreement, or the 1965 ROK-Japan Normalization Treaty might be fairly arcane stuff. Every time some diplomat talks about the International Court of Justice, invoked a treaty, or rehashes alternative views on history, the resulting jingoism draws clearer cultural lines on the East Asian map between exotic places most laypeople never assumed were distinct. It might not be for good reasons, but even laypeople are taking sides. Citizens in the region are responding, not always politely or with any logical force. Slowly, the region is introducing itself to the world. And, the people in the region are missing an opportunity to control that communication because all the animosity is directed at other countries. Citizens are learning how to control events, sloppily, a bit ugly, but it’s clear that justice is a priority.
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