Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 5:07 AM

China and Japan in Falklands-Like Dispute

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

I remember well the prevailing view that Mainland Chinese leaders would have a difficult time inspiring loyalty among Hong Kong Chinese after “the handover” in 1997.  Which is why it is more than ironic that it’s a Hong-Kong based group that is leading nationalistic protests against Japan over ownership and control of the Senkakus Islands (aka the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese).

Japan has administered these relatively uninhabited islands ever since the handover of administration (back) from the United States in 1971. Except that both China and Taiwan lay territorial claims that make ownership of these islands even more disputed than ownership of the Falkland Islands. Instructively, Argentina was unable to wrest ownership or control of these islands from Britain even after triggering a full-scale war in 1982.

Which begs the question. Is either China or Japan prepared to go to war over the Senkakus Islands?

I think not. Especially because Japan seems every bit as determined as Britain was to protect and defend its sovereign claim.  Japan demonstrated this when it wasted no time detaining and then summarily deporting Hong Kong activists who landed there last week.

And, as if to demonstrate that going to war to defend these islands would enjoy popular support, Japanese nationalists landed on Sunday, without incident, and raised their national flag on the beach in a symbolic re-staking of their claim.

This is why I suspect Mainland Chinese leaders will allow Chinese nationalists to exorcise their passions by leading street protests – complete with vandalizing Japanese-made cars along the way. These leaders might even hurl diplomatic rhetoric at Japan commensurate with those passions; but nothing more.

Besides, they are probably relieved that these few protests over Japanese imperialism are detracting attention from the thousands of riots over political corruption and the growing gap between rich and poor that are sowing the seeds of a “Chinese Spring” (aka a Jasmine Revolution).

Not to mention that war between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands would make the war between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands seem like a barroom brawl between mindless drunks. Not least because the United States would be compelled to honor its treaty obligations to defend Japan….

To complicate matters, China is engaged in similar territorial disputes throughout the region with the Philippines, Vietnam, India, South Korea and others. All of which makes it liable to increasingly loud and defiant charges that its claims are more pursuant to imperial ambitions than national sovereignty.

The irony, of course, is that Chinese leaders have grown their country into an economic superpower by zealously disabusing people all over the world of their fears about such imperial ambitions. Never mind the more acute irony that this dispute actually says far more about Japan’s imperial past than it does about any imperial ambition China might have.

Indeed, I’ve written a number of commentaries on the umbrage the Chinese take whenever Japanese leaders make a public show of their pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine. This shrine honors Japan’s war dead. For China, however, it is tantamount to German leaders making a public show of their pilgrimages to a shrine honoring dead Nazis.

In any case, notwithstanding the mob-like passions of their respective nationalists, I’m sure Chinese and Japanese leaders alike are mindful of the folly of fighting a war over desolate islands that could only end in a pyrrhic victory at best.

Related commentaries:
Yasukuni shrine
Revolution simmering in China

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