Senkakus: Some Plans are too Complex to keep the Peace

One Conflict, two Sustainable Solutions

When it comes to the Senkakus (or Diaoyu Islands, in Chinese), I’m sure there are lawyers who can make a convincing case for China’s, or for Japan’s position. The immediate problem seems to be that neither side – neither Beijing, nor Tokyo – will be prepared to have an international court – the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) would be a likely address – decide their dispute. The Economist suggested a natural solution, i. e.:

Our own suggestion is for governments to agree to turn the Senkakus and the seas round them—along with other rocks contested by Japan and South Korea—into pioneering marine protected areas. As well as preventing war between humans, it would help other species.

Hardcore ecologists may agree. If any territory that gets contested by anyone was ti be turned into ecological habitat, too, they might agree even more. But what we need in this context aren’t conservation areas. International relations need rules.

In that light, another suggestion, also by the Economist, but in another article, makes much more sense:

[..] for the majority of disputes, the courts can provide fair results. It may take decades to finish the job, but a long wait is better than the alternative. In the words of one international lawyer: going to court is always cheaper than going to war.

The Economist believes in progress. That doesn’t mean that they would never support war. They supported the war against Iraq in 2003, for example. But generally, their stance seems to be that global economic integration and growing prosperity would be the real way forward. By habitat or by law.

After all, war on Iraq looked manageable, in 2003. A war between China and Japan, one a nuclear military power, the other quite probably backed by a nuclear military power, looks very different, not to mention the impact on the global economy, even if war could be limited.

Click the blood to enter the Mukden Incident Museum

Click the blood to enter the Mukden Incident Museum

It is right to work for peace. But should we take the peace for granted?

Foarp appears to believe that, and cites two reasons:

  • it is the government that drives the demonstrations in China, which in themselves fit a long running pattern for such demonstrations
  • There is nothing to fight for. The islands themselves are of little or no value and are incapable of sustaining significant numbers of inhabitants.

In short, according to Foarp, the current

sudden outburst of government-directed anger against Japan is most likely an attempt at distraction from the CCP’s current problems surrounding this year’s transition of leadership in Beijing. Put simply, in observing Chinese political affairs you should never forget which hand holds the whip.

Totalitarianism can change Public Opinion, but not Anytime

Both Foarp and I, if I remember our past discussions correctly, think of China as a totalitarian state. But that doesn’t mean that the whip is irrevocably in the hands of the CCP. The CCP did create many of the factors that make nationalism a double-edged sword for Beijing. Nationalism can be the mastic that holds the party and the “masses” together. But nationalism is also one of the few areas of “public opinion” where government censorship on “patriotic” utterances looks truly awkward, and makes the CCP’s own “patriotism” look dingy. In short: a petroleum tanker notched up to full speed over decades – think of patriotic education as the heavy fuel that drives it – can’t easily be stopped within days, or even weeks, without get into odds with people whose anger you would better agree with, for the sake of your own credibility.

Japan is no one-party dictatorship. But there are political parties which use nationalism as a whip on more moderate competitors. Yoshihiko Noda‘s decision to buy three of the Senkaku islands was most probably driven by the desire to snatch that booty away from Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s nationalistic mayor, who had previously planned to buy those islands from its private owners. Depending on Japan’s future national elections, nationalists may still inherit those islands from the moderates.

Nationalism may come, in many ways, naturally. That is debatable in itself, but it’s my belief that love for ones own country, even hot-headed at times, for a limited period and under certain circumstances, can be natural. What is not so natural is the mixture of victimization and megalomania Chinese students have been fed with for many decades. It’s a rather philistine kind of megalomania, but it is too presumptuous to be considered normal. The Bangkok Post published an article by Robert Sutter on Tuesday, and it is more outspoken than what you will get to read in most cases. Above all, it describes a Chinese tendency to believe in a unity of foreign-policy principles and practice, while  from the viewpoint of the neighbours and foreign specialists, the principles kept changing and gaps between principles and practice often were very wide. And Chinese opinion sees whatever problems China faces with neighbours and other concerned powers including the US over sensitive issues of sovereignty and security as caused by them and certainly not by China.

Combine that with a belief that China is becoming invincible. Most Chinese citizens have never been in the army. Even less have seen genuine war. War seems to be a remote thing, even if it should occur. When Yugoslavia was on fire in the 1990s, I was in China, and I was told that Europe was enviable – it had Northern Ireland, the Basque country, and Yugoslavia. There was real action in our place. And those who talked that way were no idiots who ran around in camouflage suits after hours – they were quite normal people. It became a completely different story when the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed a few weeks later.

Patriotism is – in itself – a good thing. That’s why all powers, but totalitarian ones in particular, want to manipulate it to their own ends. A totalitarian political system has the most comprehensive plans. The problem with that, as Walter Sobchak famously said:

If the plan gets too complex something always goes wrong.

Tokyo, and most Japanese people, probably don’t want war. Beijing, and most Chinese people, probably don’t want war, either. But Chinese anger on Japan is not just a welcome “distraction” for Beijing, as Foarp and many commenters suggest. It is fuel that Beijing wants to harness. That, see above, is a very complex plan.

Mark it zero.

This is a league game, Smokey. Mark it zero.

A disproportionate demand for respect – and that’s what nationalism is about -, is usually based on a long, complex story. Therefore, there’s no need for anything substantial to fight over. The demands are substance enough.

If you want a Fight, there’s Always something to Fight over

One can get too obsessed with history. It’s not the proverbial “mirror” to predict the future – but it does give us clues about human behavior – behavior that seems to make sense to contemporaries, even if it leads to war. Behavior that makes no sense to the later generations, or at hindsight, often not even in the countries who “won”.

On July 29 and 30, 1914, Russian Czar Nicholas II and German Emperor Wilhelm II exchanged several telegrams, in which they made demands on each other and at the same time assured each other that neither of them wanted a war. At the same time, Austria-Hungary was mobilizing its army. has English translations of those telegrams. What apparently missed: Serbia actually accepted Vienna’s ultimatum. The German emperor’s reaction:

That’s more than one could expect! A great moral success for Vienna, but with it all reason for war disappears. (Das ist mehr als man erwarten konnte! Ein großer moralischer Erfolg für Wien, aber damit fällt jeder Kriegsgrund weg.)

If all reason for war had disappeared, Vienna didn’t care, and invaded Serbia anyway. From that moment on, Czar Nicholas was under pressure from the Russian public – and Russia’s international position was at stake. Simply giving in would have been another blow, five years after the Bosnian crisis.

Neither war, nor a trade war between China and Japan, are inevitable. But status and influence in East Asia are a league game. Japan “retreated” in a diplomatic showdown about the arrest of a Chinese trawler crew in 2010.

Business concerns prevailed, the Economist noted, in September that year,

and so did China, in a sense. A bitter feud with Japan had been escalating since September 7th, when a Chinese fishing boat ran into a Japanese patrol in waters which both countries claim as sovereign territory. Today Japan released the boat’s Chinese skipper, who had been accused of bashing into the two Japanese vessels deliberately. With the release of the captain, Zhan Qixiong, the diplomatic world breathes a sigh of relief. But how to score this match? Japan comes off looking weak, as it succumbs to an avalanche of pressure.

That’s not going to work every time. Neither public pressure in China (which has long forgotten 2010 and feels “humiliated” all over again), nor public pressure in Japan should be underestimated.

Nothing to fight for?

People who feel that they are just bystanders may feel that real clashes would be irrational. People who feel that they are stakeholders may view things very differently.



» Out of Hand, Beijing Cream, Sep 17, 2012
» Caught in the Screw, Nov 18, 2010


4 Responses to “Senkakus: Some Plans are too Complex to keep the Peace”

  1. I guess I should warn your before I continue that my answer starts with a “Yes, but . . .”

    The area in dispute is one in which war can only break out if the armed forces of either side are ordered to enter it. It is not a border zone in which one side or the other is guaranteed to have troops. Neither side will be hustled by allies into war in this area (in the words of one German official commenting on Germany’s guarantee to Austria-Hungary – “fettered to a corpse”). The present situation does not constitute a crisis in relations between the two countries of the kind seen between Russia and Germany in 1914, or France and Prussia in 1870 (although that was an example of a disastrous war being kicked off over hurt feelings – but because a senior government member wished it to be so), or the UK and Argentina in 1982, since there is, at final analysis, nothing of consequence that can be secured through war in this area under these conditions.


  2. Replace Germany’s links with the Austrian-Hungarian “corpse” with the CCP’s links to Chinese nationalism, and you have some of the same dynamics. Replace the same thing with Japanese-U.S. ties, and you have an American quandary. Japan has no American blank endorsement for the defense of the Senkakus, but if China and Japan clash (and if the U.S. and regional states still oppose a rapid Japanese military buildup), it won’t be easy to stay out of a conflict.

    Such a conflict doesn’t need to be started by navy vessels. Just a number of patrol boats from each side that crash into one another can lead to the deployment of warships around the islands, as the next step in an escalation.

    There’s one aspect to the ownership transfer of three of the islands which could spell rational reasons for China to deploy patrol boats, and maybe warships, in the adjacent waters – the ownership transfer was an exercise of Japan’s de-facto control. De-facto control, in turn, matters in judging who exercises sovereignty.



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