Japan argues that the islands were vacant until 1895, when the Japanese government laid claim to them. Japanese nationals used and lived on them in the following decades—a fish-processing plant owned by a Japanese national once chugged away here. China did not dispute Japan’s claim to the islands during this period. Nor did China object when the United States took control of them during the occupation of Japan starting in 1945. The U.S. handed the islands back to Japan in 1972.
But since the early ’70s, China has argued that Japan seized the islands in violation of international law. China argues it owned the islands before 1895, based on some ancient Chinese texts and maps that it says show that the Chinese regarded the islands as theirs, which would mean Japan’s seizure of the islands violated China’s rights.
The international law that governs territorial disputes favors Japan. When no one occupies or controls a piece of territory, it is deemed terra nullius (“land belonging to no one”).
The rules of international law to which both sides appeal embody the power relationships that existed at the time of their emergence centuries ago. At that time, the great powers raced around the world claiming territories that were either unoccupied or occupied by native tribes. With a lot of territory to snap up, it made sense for them to implicitly agree not to contest one another’s conquests so that they could all concentrate on seizing the areas that were up for grabs.
In 1895, Japan was on the cusp of great-power status, while China was beset by internal turmoil and foreign pressures. Japan could control the islands; China could not. Now China has the upper hand and is unhappy with the 19th-century division of spoils. Why should it go along with territorial allocations that result from rules that favored strong nations a century ago?
In the end, whether Japan should resist or retreat is a military and political question, not a legal one. If China’s ambitions extend only to the tiny unoccupied islands in the region, yielding these fisheries and hydrocarbons may be worth it to keep the peace.
But is this a first step ?
Lee Kuan Yew provides insight
Lee Kuan Yew (who was leader of Singapore) wrote The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World
Competition between the United States and China is inevitable, but conflict is not. This is not the Cold War. The Soviet Union was contesting with the United States for global supremacy. China is acting purely in its own national interests. It is not interested in changing the world.
There will be a struggle for influence. I think it will be subdued because the Chinese need the United States, need U.S. markets, U.S. technology, need to have students going to the United States to study the ways and means of doing business so they can improve their lot. It will take them 10, 20, 30 years. If you quarrel with the United States and become bitter enemies, all that information and those technological capabilities will be cut off. The struggle between the two countries will be maintained at the level that allows them to still tap the United States.
Unlike U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the United States and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market. Sino-American relations are both cooperative and competitive.
A stabilizing factor in their relationship is that each nation requires cooperation from and healthy competition with the other. The danger of a military conflict between China and the United States is low. Chinese leaders know that U.S. military superiority is overwhelming and will remain so for the next few decades. They will modernize their forces not to challenge America but to be able, if necessary, to pressure Taiwan by a blockade or otherwise to destabilize the economy. China’s military buildup delivers a strong message to the United States that China is serious about Taiwan. However, the Chinese do not want to clash with anyone — at least not for the next 15 to 20 years. The Chinese are confident that in 30 years their military will essentially match in sophistication the U.S. military. In the long term, they do not see themselves as disadvantaged in this fight.
China will not let an international court arbitrate territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so the presence of U.S. firepower in the Asia-Pacific will be necessary if the U.N. Law of the Sea is to prevail.
The size of China will make it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity over the next 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance. The question is whether the United States can continue its role as a key security and economic player in the Pacific. If she can, East Asia’s future is excellent. But there will be problems if the U.S. economy does not recover its competitiveness.
The United States cannot afford to abandon Japan unless it is willing to risk losing its leverage on both China and Japan. Whether or not there is a U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, the only stable balance that can be maintained is a triangular one between Japan and the United States on the one side and China on the other. This is inevitable because of China’s potential weight, which far exceeds that of the United States and Japan combined.
The United States cannot stop China’s rise. It just has to live with a bigger China, which will be completely novel for the United States, as no country has ever been big enough to challenge its position. China will be able to do so in 20 or 30 years. Americans have to eventually share their preeminent position with China.
The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.
The U.S. Congress is against any new free-trade agreements (FTAs). If the next Congress continues to oppose FTAs, valuable time will be lost, and it may be too late to try again. Congress must be made to realize how high the stakes are and that the outlook for a balanced and equitable relationship between American and Chinese markets is becoming increasingly difficult. Every year, China attracts more imports and exports from its neighbors than the United States does from the region. Without an FTA, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the ASEAN countries will be integrated into China’s economy–an outcome to be avoided.
SOURCES – Slate, The Atlantic