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The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute: Islands between two nations—territory and legitimacy in Sino-Japanese nationalisms

Written by: Charlotte Bascaule

Although the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has been emphasized as a matter of ‘cold politics, hot economics’, the enduring mistrust and risk of escalation between China and Japan stem precisely from the symbolic and historical nature of the controversy.

In the past decades, both China and Japan have appeared committed to consolidating ‘mutually beneficial’ cooperation, integrating their economies and multiplying socio-cultural exchanges. Yet, in a rapidly-changing regional order, mutual distrust, resulting from re-emerging controversies over Northeast Asian nations’ shared history, continues to complicate Sino-Japanese relations. In such circumstances, conflicting sovereignty claims over uninhabited island groupings in the East China Sea (ECS) have encapsulated these historical nationalist antagonisms, becoming a catalyst for militarization and debates over the future of the regional order.

The sovereignty dispute dates back to the late 19th century, when imperial Japan, aiming to become a ‘modern nation’ modelled after European colonial powers, unilaterally annexed the independent Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, among which the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and formalized sovereignty in 1895 after its victory in the Sino-Japanese War, at a time when international law was defined by imperialism. China showed little reaction in the late 19th century, and again did not react when Japan’s sovereignty over the islands was reaffirmed by a number of international treaties after World War II (e.g. 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty), at a time when China was denied all say in the negotiations due to early Cold War imperatives.

However, since the 1960s, as it gradually opened to Western market-oriented concepts of trade and development, China has been claiming the islands with increasing assertiveness, as a strategic matter, and notably for its resource potential. Yet, the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is not limited to economic calculations. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the controversy has acquired a more symbolic nature in terms of historical legitimacy, and contests over postwar Northeast Asian order.

Pushed by a crisis of legitimacy and identity after the fall of the USSR and the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese Communist Party has been bolstering popular nationalism through educational campaigns and public discourse appealing to memories of Japanese imperialism. Similarly, the 1990s also produced major debates about Japanese national identity, wartime responsibilities and its future security attitude in the region, promoting an alternative more ‘positive’—but also more aggressively nationalistic-narrative of Japan’s colonial conquests to bolster patriotic pride despite the loss of empire.

It is precisely this symbolic, memory-based aspect of the dispute – rather than its economic side—that lies at the core of the issue. Enduring mutually-alienating nationalist grievances explain both the increasing militarization and risk of escalation in the ECS in recent decades, and the difficulty to resolve the dispute. Both countries’ beliefs about negative shared past are acting like a security dilemma, causing heightened threat perception and encouraging assertive foreign policy to defend national territory. Responding to one another through this historical lens, these irreconcilable narratives fuel on the one hand Chinese fears and hostility toward Japan’s nationalization of three islands from the Senkaku chain in 2012, its 2015 security reforms and alliance with the United States (the illegitimate hegemon in Asia). On the other hand, they encourage Japan to challenge China’s allegedly disruptive rise, its 2013 Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), its 2021 Coast Guard Law and ensuing increasing presence in the ECS, through a nationalistic anti-Chinese rhetoric voiced increasingly during Covid-19.

The islands dispute then encapsulates the highly nationalistic Sino-Japanese contest over the legitimacy of the postwar Northeast Asian order, invoking and challenging treaties rooted in nineteenth-century imperialist practices, twentieth-century wartime alliances and early-Cold-War objectives. Japanese reliance on the Cold-War 1952 Treaty thus seeks to denounce Chinese behaviour in the ECS as illegal sovereignty violations and emphasize Japan’s rule-abiding support for the U.S.-led postwar order. Meanwhile, China uses the wartime Cairo (1943) and Potsdam (1945) declarations to invoke memories of imperialist military Japan and condemn its postwar territorial recoveries (notably, the islands in question) and recent security reforms but more importantly, to undermine the legitimacy of the postwar regional order altogether, from which China feels it has unjustly suffered in the context of Cold War affiliations. Crucially, the conflict is one where national identity and legitimacy are guiding foreign policy perceptions, discourses, goals and behaviour.

Despite these clashes, bilateral relations have proved remarkably resilient in dealing with the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. Both countries are actively committing to safeguarding common strategic interests and expanding bilateral, regional and global economic cooperation, rather than risking an escalation of the conflict (e.g. 2000 fisheries agreement, 2008 joint development understanding, 2018 MACM hotline for direct dialogue). Nevertheless, considering the implications of a compromise on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute for the regional order, international status and other sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea or Taiwan, persisting reliance on mutually-alienating historical nationalist discourses and strategically-calculated symbolic threats risk jeopardizing recent progress and prevents any hope of building political trust.

Consequently, while bilateral cooperation can develop despite mistrust, the only way to sustainably de-escalate risk over the islands dispute is through long-term confidence-building measures and sustained efforts to avoid alienating nationalistic discourses and refrain from conflating legitimate nationalistic protests and mobility in the ECS to denounce the threat the other represents. Dealing with the Senkaku/Diaoyu question requires addressing its root causes, that is Sino-Japanese nationalist historical grievances. Rather than invoking memories of negative shared past and narratives depicting the other as a threat, it is necessary for China and Japan to emphasize their common interests and past and present positive shared experiences and collaboration as a counter-current.

Beyond current cooperation initiatives, this islands dispute could benefit particularly from reminding the Chinese and Japanese people of their similarities and past integration in the pre-modern period, when strictly-defined borders, ‘exclusive economic zones’, and clear-cut cultural and national distinctions between the two countries did not exist, and the islands were part of a multicultural blend of Japanese, Chinese and indigenous elements, closely engaging with both the Qing Dynasty and Tokugawa Japan. In such circumstances where conflicting treatises of questionable legitimacy are being invoked by both parties to make competing claims, a new perspective on the islands dispute and Sino-Japanese relations could encourage a rethinking of concepts of territory-management and sovereignty. Indeed, when applied to spaces affected by Western interference like Asia, a re-examination of pre-modern Asian traditions of thought around sovereignty, setting aside Westphalian principles of clear-cut national borders in favor of shared management or multi-layered sovereignty, could be more fruitful for resolving disputes like the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Subsequently, this process could allow a redefinition of our expectations for the future of the Northeast Asian order more broadly.

The islands dispute, then, represents an opportunity for both countries to create a more mutually-beneficial experience and narrative of their bilateral cooperation rather than maintaining pessimistic rhetoric on their ambitions and relations, which risks turning such discourses into self-fulfilling prophecies. As illustrated by Franco-German reconciliation for instance, such a process, through sustained active efforts, can prove successful in the long term.

Featured image by David and Jessie Cowhig (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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