Behind the Headline: Why is Asia in an Uproar Over Some Rocks?

An aerial view of some of the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan calls them “Senkaku”, and China calls them “Diaoyu”. (AP)

So… um…. okay….

Apparently Japanese athletes will not be participating in any events in China this week over safety concerns, after anti-Japanese protests in the streets of China turned violent this week. This is the latest development amid rising tensions between the two nations this past week, that have involved the mobilization of China’s navy and calls for calm by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

And what has provoked all this vitriol and saber-rattling? Those tiny islands you see in the picture above. No, really, that is what all this fuss is about.

Looks like it’s Behind the Headlines time.

Okay, what in the world?

What is this? I can’t even…

There are actually a large number of islands just like those in the waters around Asia that are disputed by the countries around them. The islands that have made headlines this week are disputed between Japan, who calls them “Senkaku”, and China, who calls them “Diaoyu”. Earlier this month, there were protests and big diplomatic tensions over a different set of tiny islands disputed between South Korea and Japan after the South Korean president visited the islands. And there have been several tense moments this year involving the South China Sea, which is full of disputed islands.

There are actually disputed islands all over the world, and in fact the United States has a centuries-old dispute with Haiti over who owns Navassa Island in the Caribbean. But you don’t see Navassa making headlines. In fact, you probably hadn’t even heard of it. Nor, I’m guessing, have you heard of the disputed islands in Asia until this year, even though those disputes date from at least World War II, and some are far, far older. The reason islands like these get disputed in the first place is usually because they are just too tiny to care about – they were forgotten by the folks drawing the borders, or one country claimed the island but never settled it, leaving the next country to think they found an undiscovered island and claim it for themselves.

However, when natural resources enter the picture, things start to change. For example, those South China Sea islands are valuable because of oil, commercial fishing, and its strategic location along many of the world’s most important shipping lanes. That pair of shoes labelled “Made in China” you have may well have passed through these disputed waters on its way to the store where you bought them. Likewise, oil and natural gas are abundant near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The recent wave of protests were sparked when the previous owners sold the islands to the Japanese government, which China claimed violated its sovereignty.

So, I guess this is really a dispute over natural resources, then?

Well, yes and no. As usual, things are more complicated than that. After all, if it were JUST oil and fishing rights that were the problem, a few business negotiations could solve the problem. People generally aren’t all that thrilled with the idea of a “war for oil”, so these pumped and angry protesters are clearly not just motivated by economic concerns. No, the problems run deeper than that.

Let’s start with the most recent tussle between China and Japan. Those two countries have a very long and very unhappy history. In ancient days, China saw itself as the “Middle Kingdom”, the center of the world and fountain of civilization, whose emperor ruled by the will of heaven, and thus no country could trade with China without first making a show of how much they revered the emperor and acknowledged his superiority. Meanwhile, Japan’s emperors claimed descent from the goddess Amaterasu, and that the Japanese people are a special, divine race. Not exactly a formula for good relations, and indeed Japanese pirates were a perpetual enemy of the Chinese navy. In more recent times, Japan humiliated China with their victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, then invaded China again in World War II, during which time they committed horrendous atrocities against the public such as mass rape and the use of poison gas and biological weapons. After the war, Japan’s schools and media basically tried to pretend those atrocities never happened, infuriating the Chinese survivors and their descendants. Then there is the Yasukuni shrine that commemorates Japan’s war dead, but also includes convicted war criminals in its roster of “honored dead”.

Japan’s history with Korea is just as full of animosity and bitter feelings. In the South China Sea, Vietnam, one of the nations pushing a tougher line in its dispute, won its independence from China (as I’ve mentioned before) and for their efforts got a long history of being re-invaded and re-invaded by Chinese armies, right up until 1979.

The fact is, in many parts of Asia a large part of being your nationality is hating some neighboring nationality, just like how a large part of Irish identity comes from hating the English. When events like this happen, it drums up long-standing bitter resentments that get people up and marching. Even if it’s over some rocks in the middle of the ocean.

Does this mean Asia is on the brink of war?

So far, all of the nations involved in these island disputes have pledged that they will seek a peaceful resolution to the problem. Indeed, according to The Economist, making a big, hairy deal about these old disputes may well just be a distraction to divert public attention from problems at home. (Not the first time this trick had been tried, remember the Falklands War?) However, there are two big, meddling factors that might cause things to spin out of control and lead people to blunder their way into a fight:

China wants to be a major world power, a major naval power, and the biggest guy on the block in Asia. President Obama has decided that our national defense strategy and military resources need to be “rebalanced” toward Asia. China thinks that America is trying to contain it, in part because many Americans are advocating just that. Those Americans are advocating containing China for fear that it intends to threaten its neighbors. This vicious cycle of mistrust is hard to break, but so far America and China have managed to put a smile on and continue to trade and do business as normal, in the hope that this diffuses tension and promotes trust.

On the other hand, many nations in Asia, including many of the ones involved in these disputes, such as Japan and the Philippines, see America as a shield against China, and statements by our State Department that the US is treaty-bound to back up Japan if China tries to take those disputed islands by force may only embolden people to make rash, stupid decisions that jeopardize the fragile peace. The last thing Uncle Sam wants right now is to be sucked into a shootout with one of our biggest trading partners.

Indeed, just a few months ago everybody’s nerves were jangled by a naval standoff between China and the Philippines over a fishing vessel. Luckily, that dispute was resolved peacefully, but with the world still dealing with the fallout from the recession, the Arab Spring and the ongoing war in Afghanistan those tense days were one thing to worry about too many. After all, who really wants to go to war over some uninhabited rocks?

Information mainly from The Economist.