Could a Bird Avert a China-Japan War?

Short of buying a 15-megaton thermal nuclear bomb from Russia and blowing up the Senkaku/Daioyu islands (making sure that nothing remains above the water line at low tide), is there any other way to defuse this escalating territorial dispute that some observers worry could lead to war between China and Japan?

There is, of course, an international mechanism specifically designed to arbitrate just such disputes. Both Beijing and Tokyo could, in theory, bring the dispute before an arbitration panel of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The trick is getting both sides to agree to arbitration. At the moment neither side is anywhere close to putting its claims in the hands of an impartial panel.

Officially, Tokyo does not admit that there is any dispute at all. Meanwhile, China describes the Senkaku as a “core interest,” in the same way as Tibet, and one does not submit a “core interest” to the final arbitration of 15 disinterested judges or a committee of them.

Beijing in particular would be loath to open this door, as it could easily apply to other territorial disputes, especially in the South China Sea, where in late March Manila appealed to the ICJ to rule on Beijing’s “nine-dash line” a series of heavy dashes on official Chinese maps that make it appear that China is claiming the entire South China Sea.

Tokyo is more amenable to using the ICJ to mediate its dispute with Seoul over an island group in the Sea of Japan known as the Dokdo to Koreans and Takeshima to Japan. But here Japan has a relatively weak hand as South Korea has garrisoned the tiny rocks since 1954 and has consistently rejected or ignored Tokyo’s appeals for arbitration.

The difficulty with taking cases to the ICJ is one of the parties has to be prepared to lose and accept the verdict, unless, as happens on some cases, it is possible to split the differences. In this case the five Senkaku islets and adjacent rocks do not lend themselves to being divvied up some way.

What often happens is the losing party simply walks out on the court in a huff. That is exactly what Colombia did in 2012, when the tribunal ruled in favor of Nicaragua in a long-standing dispute over ownership of islands and mineral rights in the Caribbean. Last November it recalled its ambassador.

Enter the Short-tailed Albatross.

These elegant sea birds were hunted almost to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for their elegant feathers, which were exported to Europe to decorate the hats of stylish ladies. Much of the hunting was done on the Senkaku islands, one of the places where the birds breed. That, of course, was when the island was still open to visitors.

The last permanent inhabitants left the islands and returned to Japan in the 1940s, shutting down the business enterprise, a processing plant for making bonito flakes used in Japanese fish broth. At one time, the island boasted a population of 248 people and even a school. Lack of fuel during the war (all food and other supplies had to be imported by sea), made the business untenable: the owners sold out to a family that would later sell the island to the national government.

Currently, there are just two breeding places for the short-tailed albatross: Torishima Island in the Bonin Chain south of Tokyo and on Mina-Kojima, one of the Senkakus. Once nearing extinction, the short -tailed albatross is now protected on Torishima and left to themselves on the Senkakus.

The Senkaku is also the apparent home, indeed the only home, of a rare rodent known as the “Senkaku Mole” of which there is apparently only one picture in existence.

Because no one is allowed to land on the island, no scientist has been able to evaluate the condition of the flora and fauna on the islands. Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor of maritime issues at Tokai University, was part of a “survey” team sent to investigate the condition of the islands in part to help put a price on them while it was up for sale. But he and his colleagues had to do their surveying on board small ships and boats and were not permitted to land.

“Unless we start soon, it will be too late for us to conserve the nature of the islands,” Yamada laments.

The biggest ecological threat to the islands is the presence of goats that are overrunning the place. Senkaku has become a kind of goat paradise with plenty to eat and no predators.

Two or three obviously fertile goats were slipped onto the main island Uotsurishma in 1978 by a group of ultra-nationalist Japanese who evidently felt that there should be some kind of living Japanese presence on the island so long as no human beings were allowed to live there. They’ve grown to a herd of an estimated 300.

What the Senkaku needs more than activists who plant flags and then disappear is a fulltime game warden. There is a crying need to cull the herd before the creatures gnaw their way through just about every living tree - either by exterminating them, or, one might hope, corralling and repatriating the creatures back to Japan.

It is hard to believe that the hard-nosed leaders in Beijing or Tokyo are likely to get excited over preserving the Short-tailed Albatross, much less the elusive Senkaku Mole, but they might be open to a face-saving solution in which no side “wins” and no side “loses.”

Turn the Senkaku into a bird sanctuary by selling it to some kind of conservation foundation or putting them under the nominal control of an international organization, while, in the meantime, the two countries, Japan and China put their competing claims to sovereignty into deep freezer where they belong.