International ties

Disputes over Diaoyu Islands do Japan no good

By Dongping Han (
Updated: 2010-09-14 10:40
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About 10 days ago, the Japanese government detained a Chinese fishing boat, and arrested the Chinese fishermen, and decided to put them on trial for violating Japanese maritime territory.

According to Lianhe Zaobao, the captain's grandmother was so worried over her first grandson's safety that she had a heart attack, and died as a result.

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Diaoyu Islands have been claimed by Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Japan for the last 40 years. China's claim over the Islands was backed by long historical records in the past. Japan's claim over the territory was backed by the US and Japan Okinawa Reversion Treaty signed in 1970, which included Diaoyu Islands as part of Okinawa, the Chinese name of which is Liuqiu Islands, to be returned to Japanese rule.

Japan took Liuqiu Islands (Okinawa) from China by force in 1874. When China lost its war with Japan over Korea, China was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan in 1895. At that time, Diaoyu Islands were ceded to Japan along with Taiwan. When Japan was defeated at the end of World War II, Japan was forced to give up all the territories it took from China by force, which included Liuqiu and Taiwan, as part of Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces.

 Chiang Kai-shek, president of the Republic of China, who was the sole leader of China at the time, was preparing for its ultimate showdown with the Chinese Communist Party, and did not want to be burdened with the occupation of Liuqiu Islands. He declined Roosevelt's invitation to occupy Liuqiu twice. But he agreed to take Taiwan back.

Chiang was also very generous in his dealing with Japan. He demonstrated the Chinese generosity to Japan with his policy of Yide baoyuan (return cruelty with kindness and generosity), and decided to exempt Japan from its responsibility to compensate the Chinese people's suffering and loss with a war indemnity, which was the customary practice in international affairs at that time, and through which Japan had extracted hundreds of million ounces of silver from China in 1895 and 1900.

Since then many Chinese in both Taiwan and mainland have been questioning Chiang's decision to return Japanese atrocities in China with kindness.

When Japan and US signed the 1970 treaty to return Diaoyu Islands to Japanese rule amid the Cold War, Chiang Kai-shek did not make much noise about it because he did not want to offend the US, on whose support he depended.

But the Chinese students from Taiwan launched a huge Baodiao Movement (defending Diaoyu Islands Movement) in the US against Chiang's government. Diaoyu Islands became a unifying issue for Chinese students from different parts of the world who came to the US to study. They demonstrated, protested and made speeches throughout American university campuses and major cities.

Eventually, the movement turned against Chiang's dictatorial rule in Taiwan. Many activists turned into pro-mainland elements as the movement grew, and some of the leaders eventually returned to Chinese mainland.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai met with leaders of the Baodiao Movement from the US a couple of times. As China was eager to improve its relations with Japan in an effort to break the long-lasting US embargo against China, the premier advised the leaders of Baodiao Movement to be patient, and to leave the dispute over Diaoyu Islands to future generations. Since then, many of the former leaders of the Baodiao Movement have questioned Premier Zhou's wisdom.

Territorial disputes are always hard to resolve, and they can easily escalate to something that runs out of control. For the last 40 years, there have been citizens groups in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chinese mainland and concerned overseas Chinese groups demanding that China should claim Diaoyu Islands more aggressively.

In Japan, there have been groups landing on Diaoyu Islands to build a beacon to claim the territory for Japan. But on the whole, the two sides were postponing a final solution of the territory disputes over Diaoyu Islands. Japan's recent move to arrest and try the Chinese fishermen this time has broken a long-lasting pattern of dealing with this territory dispute.

It has touched the nerves of the Chinese people and the Chinese government. Apparently, the Chinese government does not want the issue to escalate, and has so far only demanded that Japanese authorities release the boat and fishermen right away.

Chinese nationalists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland are coordinating an effort to send many boats to the contested areas to claim the islands for China.

One prominent Chinese, Ji An, suggested on his website that China should turn the Diaoyu Islands into a tourist resort, and send a dozen cruisers each day to tour the Diaoyu Islands.

I would argue that the Japanese move to detain the Chinese fishing boat and arresting Chinese fishermen was a very wrong move, a move that will hurt Japan eventually. Japan has been aggressors in the past.

It was able to get away with its aggression against China because of special circumstances, the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and the cold war of the 1970s. Japan should celebrate its good luck and be content with what it has gotten so far.

Arousing Chinese people's nationalism will do Japan no good in the long run. As China acquires more military capabilities, and as the Chinese people clamor for the government to take a harder stand against Japan's aggression, the Chinese government is no longer in a position to ignore the popular demand in China.

I do not know for sure about the circumstances of when Japan and US signed the 1970s treaty to return Liuqiu Islands (Okinawa) to Japan with Diaoyu Islands. Japan may have thought that it got a good deal.

But the disputes over Diaoyu Islands can easily escalate into something that China may use to resettle its accumulated grievances it suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialists in the long distant past.

I do not know the intentions of the US at the time, but the US has since then maintained neutrality on this issue. The US is not ready to take a position against the Chinese people in mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas, for Japan's interests only.

Japan needs to be careful when it takes steps to escalate the dispute. What will Japan do if several hundred Chinese fishing boats show up in the disputed areas? Will it be able to detain them all and arrest them all?

Dongping Han is Professor of History and Political Science at Warren Wilson College, NC. The opinions expressed are his own.