The disputed islands between China and Japan (February 2016)

But … risk a war for some uninhabited island? There is definitely something “under.” And on this “under” (but also on the “over”) the circumstances or the certainties of journalistic comments have indulged.
We are talking about the dispute between China and Japan for the so-called sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands (in Chinese) or Senkaku (in Japanese), but with implications for the disputed Paracel Islands (Xisha in Chinese) and Spratly (Nansha in Chinese) in the South China Sea, as we define it in our atlases in Italian, with great satisfaction of the Chinese who claim its full sovereignty.
But are we talking about islands or atolls or reef? The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are not large, and now uninhabited, approximately 7kmq. The Paracel are a mixture of islands and atolls (5,9kmq), the Spratly, mainly atolls, reefs and shoals, and fewer islands (5kmq). The definition is significant because the claim of sovereignty over anything that emerges from the sea can only be made if the “land” emerges permanently or predominantly over the waters at high-water mark of the tide.
The Paracel, also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, have been occupied by China (still in the Maoist period) in 1974, when the US-Vietnam war was not over yet and Vietnam was still divided into two. Given the degree of elevation China in the years buried parts of some atolls to prepare port facilities. The same procedure has been put into practice even for some of the atolls of the latter archipelago in more recent times doing a long airstrip (more than 2.8km), useful for long range flights able to reach the Philippines and the Spratly islands.
The Spratly are far south of the large island of Hainan, China’s substantial mass of nearest land, and in fact they have claimed as sovereignty by all countries whose coasts are physically closer: Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, also initially Brunei. There is a de facto partition that sees the Philippines and Vietnam with the possession of more islands than other competitors who have less islands or only atolls (such as China) or mainly “banks”.
The physical element (the size of the land mass and its consistency, the proximity to the coast), the permanent stay of residents, the historical claims (usually based on maps, documents and events of the past) are the arguments internationally recognized for the claim of sovereignty; all of those “evidences” are considered inside the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982, signed in Montego Bay, Jamaica. By the way the US did not sign it. But despite attempts to precisely define the criteria for the allocation/claim of sovereignty (which are in the Convention), the international practice is largely based on the law of the strongest and of more or less creeping interpretative forcing as well as the accomplished facts. In the case of the Spratly all riparian countries have good arguments, but China and Taiwan are formally weaker and there is a sharing/partition situation; for Paracel the “evidence” in support of sovereignty are more balanced between China and Vietnam, but with a de facto situation beneficial to China.
In the last decade China has been systematically more active in proceeding to increase the surface area and the height of some of the Spratly atolls to make them stable bases of support for military means and retain more easily the stable presence of “residents”, actually military men, useful for the claim of sovereignty. Given the geopolitical power imbalance in favor of China in 2015 the Philippines and Vietnam have applied for international arbitration, as provided by UNCLOS, but China considered it a provocation because at the ASEAN meeting in 2002 it was agreed to maintain the status quo, which does not prevent the strengthening in already-controlled islands.
In the case of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands the actual dispute is more recent and the context is significantly different: Japan is not a “marginal” country and above all, with South Korea, it is under the USA military protective umbrella thanks to historical events and treaties signed and renewed recently. Those small uninhabited islands can lead to contacts/close conflicting relation between two superpowers.
It should be noted that the historical reasons in support of any sovereignty should be assessed, by an external observer, taking into account that the international regulatory framework as well as the “iconography”, that is the mental attitude, has changed considerably in the three periods 1) before the First World War, 2) between the two wars and 3)after World War II. The historical facts should be considered in the specific historical context: it is so for 1895 (annexation of Taiwan and the Diaoyu/Senkaku by Japan), for the period between the wars (occupation of parts of China by Japan), and then after 1945 (escape of Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949 and US occupation of Japan and specifically the direct administration of the province of Okinawa until 1972). In the three periods the power and the “rights” of the states with regard to the war and territorial expansion have changed significantly.
The nationalists of each country and the internal supporters of the claims never make this kind of distinction. “Politicians, observers, activists and journalists, in each of these countries do nothing but bring up the past and memories are subject to severe manipulations for political ends” (Ian Buruma, International, September 12, 2012, on the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue).
As already mentioned the law of the strongest is the dominant one in all territorial and maritime disputes; a “law” that tends to consolidate the factual and/or making difficult to modify the factual actions taken by the strongest subjects. In this context only the actions (not so much the statements) of the powers must be observed and evaluated carefully. In the case of the Diaoyu/Senkaku therefore only physical actions of the USA and China are the first level of danger, while those between China and Japan are the second level. Official/unofficial statements, demonstrations, press campaigns have only relative value and of little relevance from the geostrategic point of view, although they can be useful indicators for an observer and also become iconographic elements (consent to the war or support practical actions as demonstration of force) that influence/guide the geopolitical dynamics.
Demonstration and/or acts of force occurred time ago for the Paracel and Spratly while the confrontation over the Diaoyu/Senkaku is more recent. Actions could be defined as creeping, interspersed with long periods of inactivity or non-relevant activities, but with some clash of the highest level as the brief naval battle in the Spratly between Vietnam and China in 1988, won by the latter. Coming to our days the Chinese actions have changed in intensity and are redirected as a result of two main factors: 1) the growth of China as an international economic power and consequently also as a geopolitical power, 2) the (resulting) progressive expansive official strategic Chinese projection from the “close seas” to “distant seas” of the 2000s (Simone Dossi, Rotte cinesi, Egea, 2014).
Following the military defeat of 1945 and the occupation of Japan by the USA the eight Senkaku islands were administered by the USA until 1971 and returned to Japan in 1972. China then claimed the sovereignty as a principle. Substantially only from 2010 the Diaoyu / Senkaku began to be an actual dispute between China and Japan. The first striking concrete act is on September 9, 2010: a Chinese fishing boat does not stop the injunctions of a Japanese coastguard ship and takes a small collision. The Chinese captain was arrested and then released on September 24. The video of the collision appears on Youtube November 4 and causes new controversy.
Between August and September 2012, the crisis was rekindled. Japanese nationalists first and then, in retaliation, Chinese (with flags of both Beijing and Taiwan) go on the islands for demonstration purposes. On September 10, Chinese patrol boats also enter the waters of the islands; in the two countries are held nationalist protests. The arguments of the Chinese protesters in Shenzhen (18th September) shooting elements of traditional anti-Japanese propaganda while in Japan activists, paradoxically, accuse the Chinese expansion with the swastika symbol of their Nazi allies during World War II. In this context the fact that the Japanese government has purchased 3 of 4 privately owned islands has been justified on the one hand as an attempt to be able to better protect the public land with patrol boats from undue intrusion (of nationalist activists both Japanese and Chinese), while China considered it an act of provocative “nationalization”.
Enlargement of the aforementioned Chinese strategy to “distant seas” leads China in November 2013 to declare its air defense zone including the Diaoyu / Senkaku. Basically it is an interdiction to fly in the area without permission and prior identification. November 23 are summoned each other’s ambassadors of China and Japan. But the most significant fact, in the analysis framework that has been outlined above, takes place on November 25 when two US bombers entered the declared exclusive air space and did not respond to requests for identification. The mass media ride the news; for a few days the international media system and a little longer the national ones.
The confrontation came to the first USA-China level of danger.
Since the end of 2012 there has been a period of substantial reduction of demonstration actions, that are limited to the encroachments of Chinese fishing boats, more or less incidental or solicited by Beijing. On February 5, 2014 a Chinese naval vessel uses the pointing radar armament targeting a Japanese coastguard that was still in close-up view. The development of electronic targeting systems for missiles and sophisticated weapons in general has become a systematic tool of demonstrative provocation; just think that already in Iraq, in the 90s, after the defeat of 1991, the anti-aircraft batteries of Saddam Hussein “pointed” US and UK fighter jets as a demonstrative gesture, knowing that this would be bombed without being able to respond with weapons.
However November 9, 2014, at the APEC summit, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands under the world media flash. But this did not contribute to new developments on the issue because their claims of sovereignty are not changed, and the progress of the more assertive policy of Abe in the sense of national pride and an even greater international military activism do not favor certain easing of tension. Japan renews and sign the mutual defense treaty with the USA (action at the first level) and the parliament approved new interpretation criteria of the super-pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to send troops abroad with a “defensive” concept more active and projected abroad (second-level action).
The “clashes” between Chinese fishing and Japanese patrol boats are resolved with blows of water cannons that the Japanese have learned to use to “defend themselves” by Greenpeace inflatable boats who seek to prevent whaling.
The Diaoyu / Senkaku confrontation follows paths and nonlinear events sometimes difficult to understand for Western observers. In any case, the Chinese continuity in moving towards “distant seas” the area of strategic “defense” seems to be the key to interpreting the recent demonstrative act (26th December 2015) in which three Chinese military vessels (for first time) approached the Diaoyu / Senkaku (29 km distance and 70 minutes long, according to Japanese source). The distance of the “intrusion” may be significant: 29 km means outside the territorial waters (12 nautical miles), but inside the waters of the so-called contiguous zone (another 12 miles) in whose waters (12 + 12) China can appeal to the so-called “innocent passage”; defined as the crossing of marine areas continuously and done so that does not affect the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Fishing, waste dumping, armed activity and espionage are not considered harmless actions; also submarines must navigate surfaced showing the flag. Of course, Japan can call it “espionage” or “security threat” and therefore consider it illegal.
The real and the underlying problem is that at the level of international relations, everywhere, the mental and conceptual cage of sovereignty, the so-called territorial integrity, borders on, “cages” the minds and policies of the decision makers directing, sometimes pushing them toward dynamics of conflict and of demonstrations of force instead of seeking concrete and not conflicting practical solutions. Which is always possible, as long as you know how to distinguish between form and substance; which the Chinese know by long tradition, but also if they are helped by flexible counterparts who know how to treat them.
In the 80ies Deng Xiaoping expressed explicitly in favor to the joint exploitation of resources, leaving aside the discussions on the principles (Dossi, p.80). Beyond that South Korea and Japan, and the same China and Japan have been under way for years the joint exploitation of undersea oil and gas resources in the waters facing their coasts. It remains difficult to understand why this solution is not taken into account in the case of the Diaoyu/Senkaku and other mentioned. It should be noted that with regard to the seabed around the latter will only have estimates about the presence and the size of the reservoirs; I believe that the resources are not the object of the dispute, but the prestige and the USA-China geopolitical balance in the Asian seas.
A possible “psychological” explanation is that the presence of fixed physical elements (islands and anything similar) in the sea waters arouses ancestral possession impulse fostered by a few thousand years of wars of conquest of “lands” and fostered by a contemporary diplomacy, based on treaties but, as for that of Montego Bay in 1982, which makes the mistake (for the not perceived side effects) to “invent” the marine Exclusive Economic Zones up to 200 nautical miles (1852 m.) from the coast (fixed geographical element): that is, 370 km!
It is the result of an old perception and geographical concept that transfers land traditional boundary criteria to mobile and hardly definable marine and oceanic waters . Unfortunately, the GPS technology with its precision in locating supports this destructive attitude of thinking that marine boundaries are ” fixed ” and can be fixed as the terrestrial ones .
It is required a reversal of the conceptual approach : only the transfer of the geographical flexibility of the oceans to the land can support, in concept and iconography, sharing policies and cooperation in the exploitation of resources . A cooperation long practiced on the mainland in Europe as an example for everybody.

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