Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands – does the Cold War continue in East Asia?

14 Août 2013

Following the Japanese governments’ announcement of its intention to purchase three of the Diaoyu (China) or Senkaku (Japan) islands on 10.9.12, Sino-Japanese relations worsened. Yet, what is the conflict really about beyond strategic shipping routes, fishing grounds and oil resources?

Crédit Photo -- Reuters/Kyodo
Crédit Photo -- Reuters/Kyodo
The conflict surrounding the islands is one of contradictory claims as China, Taiwan and Japan all separately claim the islands for themselves. While Japan’s claim dates back to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/5, both China’s claim is based on Taiwan’s control of the islands prior to 1895. After Japan successfully reasserted itself with the victory of the war, it subsequently established control over the islands and Korea while also annexing Taiwan until the official end of the Second World War in Asia in 1951.

The failure to mention the islands in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, however, leads to the current divided opinions concerning to whom the islands really belong – especially given that they are uninhabited. Yet, underlying the conflicting historical claims is the struggle for regional dominance in Asian politics. Against the backdrop of the "rise" of China in the world economy and its new assertiveness in foreign politics, Japan now fears losing its position within the power balance in Asia and is looking towards both other players within the region and traditional allies.

Remains of United States’ Cold War foreign policy in Asia

The United States continue to play a crucial role in the balance of power in Asia that should not be underestimated. Though no longer the major export destination for Taiwan and Japan, the United States remain the main guarantor of security for both, while also entertaining a close relationship to South Korea. Its commitments to protection dates back to the Cold War era – to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty (revised 1960) respectively. Whereas the former is a result of the need for reassertion of the US support for Taiwan in the light of the change of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, eight years after China took Taiwan's seat in the United Nations, the latter was signed on 08.09.1951, on the same day as the San Francisco Peace Agreement, which formally ended the American occupation of Japan.

The US-Japan relationship

Despite the overtaking of the United States as major export destination for the ROC in 2003 and Japan in 2009, the current government under conservative PM Shinzo Abe retains a close relationship with the United States. Likewise, at the Japan-US Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of 15.04.13, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, while voicing hopes that the conflict could be settled through mutual dialogue, also reaffirmed that Article 5 of the US- Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku island conflict.

Article 5 holds that in the case of an attack of Japanese-controlled territory both parties "would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations…" Given that Article 9.1 of the Japanese Constitution holds that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes", the United States defence commitment is crucial to Japan’s security. Yet even though according to Article 9.2 "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained", Japan is allowed to have "National Self Defence Forces". 

Japanese Domestic politics

Abe is seen as likely to try to review the constitution to change the wording of Article 9 to at the very least allow Japan to participate in collective self-defence, thereby enabling it to contribute troops to United Nations Peace missions. Yet, at the moment it is unlikely that Abe will take any controversial initiatives – such as reviewing the constitution before the elections of 121 of the 242 seats in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament on 21.07.13.

Abe is hoping that his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), will win at least 63 seats, which would give him a majority in both houses and end the parliamentary deadlock, as he would not need to face a public vote for three years. The LDP, which has been nearly continuously in power since 1955 (except for an 11 months period 1993/4 and 2009-12), has traditionally been associated with being pro-US and conservative, in contrast to the major opposition party, the DPJ, which reigned from 2009-12.

While according to ABC news, latest poles indicate that Abe’s chances of winning a majority are high, concerns have been voiced questioning some rather controversial attitudes towards Japan’s role in the Second World War. Especially his visit to the Tokyo shrine honouring the Japanese war dead (some of them executed for war crimes) and his statement questioning whether Japan had committed "aggressions" during the Second World War greatly alienated the PRC and South Korea, thereby also hurting US interests.

East Asia as a stage for US-China competition

With the rise of China’s economic power, the dependency of many countries on the US has fallen drastically, as China offers an alternative source of security and investment. When Obama famously declared the US an "Asia-Pacific nation" in his speech from 14.11.2009, he implicitly recognised the existence of a threat to the traditional balance of power in Asia and tried to reassert US legitimacy in Asia.

While Washington needs China in negotiations with North Korea, anti-terrorism and the mutual economic dependency, it also closely observes the Chinese growing investment into its military. China’s official military budget has been increasing by roughly 10% every year ever since 2000 (except for 7.5% in 2010) with a peak in 2001, 2002, 2007 and 2008, where it increased more than 17% in comparison to the previous year. The most recent budget was announced at 720.2 billion yuan (roughly $US114 billion) for 2013. In response, the United States has reasserted its support for states such as Taiwan or Japan especially with regards to conflict over territory in the East China Sea, while rhetorically supporting the Chinese foreign policy concept of a "peaceful rise".

Overall, the continuance of the existence of Cold War pacts in Asia to this day raises questions as to what extent the Cold War is really over. Though it might have ended in Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9.11.1989 or with the declaration of the final dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26.12.1991, divisions along ideological lines continue to play an important role in East Asia.