Give Up the Senkakus

Ideally, the governments of Japan, Korea and China would take their escalating territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice for a final settlement. Tokyo recently proposed just such an action regarding the tiny cluster of islands in the middle of the Sea of Japan, they call the Takeshimas and the Koreans the call Dokdos.

That is approximately how in 1984 Chile and Argentina settled their long-standing dispute over three islands in the Beagle Channel off the southern tip of Terra Del Fuego, a dispute that had brought the two South American countries to the brink of war. In this case, a Papal mediation ruled for Chile and Argentina accepted the decision.

On August 21 the government of Japan formally proposed to South Korea that the dispute over the sovereignty of the islets be settled in a “calm fair and peaceful way based on International law” through adjudication by the ICU.

But this was a deeply cynical move by Japan. Tokyo knew full well that Seoul wouldn’t agree to any binding arbitration. It has turned down two previous requests. And if the Koreans by some chance had agreed to such a move, Tokyo would be in a pickle, since leaders of Japan have no intention of accepting any kind of ruling that might undermine their claim to the islands.

Thus the judges of the international court were deprived of the pleasure of spending perhaps years poring through the voluminous arcane and baroque arguments, obscure maps and purported landings going back centuries, that Japan, China and Korea use to buttress their territorial claims.

There is really only one way out of this impasse, one that Japan almost certainly won’t take. But Japan could cut through the Gordian Knot and graciously cede the Dokdos and Senkakus to South Korea and China respectively along with their nearby resources with no strings attached. Call it a kind of belated reparation for invasion and occupation of the two countries during and before World War II.

That would be appropriate because history weighs heavily on these islands. Forget about the supposed undersea riches that possession of these islands might bring. Certainly, there are people in the appropriate government ministries in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo who worry about such things. But the Chinese smashing Japanese cars in Shenzhen were not thinking about marine hydrates.

For Koreans the Dokdos stand as a symbol for everything that the average citizen feels aggrieved by and for which Japan won’t fess up: the years of colonial rule, women forced into the sex trade to service soldiers, conscripted labor to Japan – the whole truckload. The Senkakus have much of the same symbolic power for China. The only way to exorcise this is for Japan to give up the islands.

Fair or not, it is Japan that bears the burden of this history. It doesn’t matter that the events took place 70 years ago, for many in Korea and China it might have happened yesterday. No apology from the government would carry the kind of weight that ceding the islands would carry.

Much has to do with the changing power relationships going back 100 years. Japan annexed the Takeshimas in 1905. Korea, then a Japanese protectorate, was not in a position to protest. Fast forward to 1954 and South Korea, fully mobilized after the Korean War, seizes control of the islands while Japan, just emerging from its own occupation, is disarmed and has no means to resist.

Japan annexed the Senkakus in 1895 supposedly after ascertaining that nobody else wanted them. For the next 70 years or so China was silent. Only in the 1970s when undersea soundings and exploration suggested that these islands might have some value did the Chinese begin to lay claim. That is Japan’s position.

One might argue that for those 70-odd years China was distracted by its internal problems – not the least being invasion and occupation by Japan - and a perception of weakness. Ironically, some commentators say that the perception of confusion and weakness in Japan’s national politics today has embolden both China and Korea to push their claims.

Obviously, surrendering the islands would involve a considerable climb-down for the Japanese government, which officially maintains that there is “no dispute,” that the Takeshima and Senkaku islands belong to Japan. But if they did, it would come to pass that they lost nothing really valuable and gained the kind of good will in Asia that it has always lacked.

Interestingly, at least one important Japanese politician may have been thinking along these lines. The Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo said that Ichiro Ozawa told Korea’s president that Japan would give up its claim to Takeshima if he became prime minister provided Seoul allowed Japanese to fish in nearby waters. Ozawa, who recently formed new break-away party, has denied the story, however.

Another reason to give up the islands: The Koreans and Chinese want them a lot more than the Japanese do. Of course, right wing nationalists such as Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara would consider any such move intolerable appeasement. But how attached to the islands are the bulk of the Japanese people? Not very, I would venture to say.

Where are the big demonstrations against Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s provocative visit to the Dokdo? The issue that agitates Japanese today and sends many of them into the streets to protest is not Takeshima; it is nuclear power and the government’s decision to restart two reactors in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In Korea the government issues postage stamps with the Dokdos on them, and the largest war ship in the Korean navy, an 18,000-ton light aircraft carrier, is provocatively named ROKS Dokdo.

If Japan did cede the Senkaku to China it should demand in return an unequivocal statement from Beijing that it forever renounces any future claim to the Japanese Nansei islands, the string of smaller islands that extend south of Okinawa, some almost within sight of Taiwan.

Beijing makes no such claim - yet, but part of its rationale for owning the Senkaku/Daioyu comes from supposed visits by Chinese fishermen as far back as the Ming Dynasty. That is probably true, but these same fishermen undoubtedly also visited Ishigaki and other islands in the southern Ryukyu chain now part of Japan. Would that be the basis for some future claim?

For that matter, some Chinese chauvinists in the deep recesses of policymakers, occasionally speculate about acquiring Okinawa based on the fact that the independent Kingdom of the Ryukyus once paid tribute to the Middle Kingdom. Of course, if China based territorial claims on historical tributary vassals, it would be claiming Korea, Vietnam and Thailand.

The situation with these wretched and totally useless outposts can only get worse. Right now a kind of arms race is building as China acquires more and bigger “fisheries protection” vessels. Meanwhile, in Japan, conservative outlets demand more and better armed coast guard vessels now stretched to the limit to police the waters around the islets against constant intrusions.

It would be hard and in many ways unfair for Japan to unilaterally cede these two disputed island groups, but may be the only way to lance a boil that will only get worse. A country dealing with a tsunami and nuclear disaster, an ageing workforce, trade deficits and fiscal problems should not be distracted by these territorial issues.