Skipping Rocks: the Quarrel Between Japan and China, and What it Means to America

As the New Year unfolds before us, we find ourselves falling off one rock and headed down toward another. We’re a bunch of Rockhounds, really, with an excellent collection going. While we’re busy arguing about the Fiscal Cliff, however, there are other dramas unfolding around the world.

Across East Asia there have been huge political changes following several important national elections this year. The most notable include China’s newly elected Party leader Xi Jinping, Japan’s Shinzo Abe returning to his post as PM after a short and tumultuous break, as well as the election of the first woman president in South Korea’s history, Park Geun Hye.

Newly elected officials provide a fresh audience for old debates. Among the most troublesome is the quarrel between Japan and China over the islets of the Ease China Sea, known alternately as the Daioyu Islands or Senkaku Islands, depending on whom you ask; for sake of sanity, I’ll call them the Pinnacle Islands here. Speculations are flying that this dispute may be more than just a battle of words. Given the current political and legislative moorings of both countries, though, what can either party really do?

The trend I am noticing has little to do with posturing and everything to do with still-festering twentieth century wounds. In the absence of an antithetic powerful enough to make both sides stop whining, this Islands dispute serves as a perfect example of why this relationship needs closure now more than ever.

1. Going back to September 1931, there was a fight between China and Japan over control of Manchuria (an independent country). China’s ousted rulers and Japan’s nationalistic pioneers both claimed a right to the area because, among other things, of its abundant raw material wealth. They couldn’t possibly be expected to manage that all on their own, now could they?

Starting back in September of last year, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara threatened to purchase the Pinnacle Islands, and nationalist agitators rejoiced, noting the Islands’ mineral deposits and profitable fisheries.

2. Hopping over to 1936, there is a united political front in China against Japan REF 2ND S-J WAR?.  In Japan there is loud and persistent agitation from the ultra-nationalist party, with the support of a public endorsing a hard-line approach to China, that was able to hold the ear of the people in power.

Also in September 2012, China’s increasingly nationalistic stance against Japan on this issue was made plain by Xi. Abe, meanwhile returned to office riding a large political plank, promising to defend Japan’s territorial integrity here, making him the centrist darling among Japanese nationalist circles.

3. Skipping on over to 1937, an air battle commenced between the Chinese Air Force and planes stationed out of (Japanese-occupied) Taiwan, with the victory clearly and surprisingly going to the Chinese.

In December 2012, China launched surveillance planes to monitor the Pinnacle Islands, with Japan responding in kind by sending its own air squadron. Fortunately, the only thing lost here was taxpayer money on both sides.

4. Jumping to mid-1940, Japan’s effort to win a popularity contest with China among smaller Asian nations materialized with the Great East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This ridiculous brain-child allowed Japan to stoke up discontent throughout Asia.

Interestingly, there is even a similarity here. If either Japan or China attempts to make a seriously aggressive move on this issue, a similar response would be generated by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and others to protect their own territorial claims against China.

America found itself in quite the political pickle, to say the least. As was persistent throughout the 1930s, America maintained a very “hands off” approach to the problems between China and Japan, with minimal support being provided based on changing national interest. Almost identical language was used last month: “We would obviously be involved in such an incident, urging restraint by both sides and working diplomatic back-channels. We have no interest in seeing this escalate.”

Being constitutionally bound to protect Japan’s national interests, while simultaneously maintaining our own financial interests with China, has pigeonholed America into a stance of “purposeful ambiguity”. This peacenik believes any escalation is bad escalation, and for once our national politics might mirror this opinion. If you’ve been keeping tabs, you know what came next in the old story, and may be left to wonder what will happen in this current story. All parties concerned need to ask whether these rocks are really worth their weighty cost.



Image source: Wikipedia



  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted
    to say wonderful blog!


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