Troubled Seas: Japan’s Pacific and East China Sea Domains (and Claims)

September 7th, 2012

Published on The Asia-Pacific Journal, Japan Focus, Vol. 10, Issue 36, No. 4, by Gavan McCormack, September 3, 2012.

… In the two years since 2010, the Asia-Pacific region has been roiled by rival territorial claims and counterclaims to islands, islets, and rocks scattered across the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, the Japan Sea and the South China Sea. In 2012 alone, strong claims and counter-claims to insular territories have been made by Japan, China, and Taiwan (Senkakus/Diaoyu), Japan and South Korea (Dokdo/Takeshima), and China, the Philippines and Vietnam among others (South China Sea islets). 

These official claims, moreover, in many cases have been reinforced by nationalist statements and actions by citizens and groups, and by clashes on the high seas contesting territorial claims. In evoking military alliances, Japan has brought the US into the picture in relation to its claims to the Senkakus, while the US has positioned itself to intervene within the South China Seas clashes. In a major examination of the Senkaku controversy, Gavan McCormack locates the issues within the broader terrain of the 1982 UNCLOS transformation of the Law of the Seas which has transformed a world of open seas into one in which the major colonial powers, notably the United States, Great Britain, France and Japan, receive huge bonanzas in terms of 200 nautical mile exclusive economic rights that flow from their colonial legacies, while China comes up short. The result is to raise fundamental questions about the premises of the UNCLOS order. Asia-Pacific Journal coordinator.

Part One – The Pacific: … //

… Weak-kneed vs. Positive Diplomacy:

  • The blessing given by the Showa emperor (Hirohito) to American military occupation of Okinawa, confirmed by the San Francisco Treaty and renewed in various forms by bilateral agreements even following nominal “reversion,” has meant that a level of Okinawan subordination to US military purposes that would be intolerable in “Japan proper” has been taken for granted as proper and enforced ever since. 78 “Koyu no ryodo” are inferior and dependent places that experience the discrimination of “koyu hondo.” Okinawa, having been successively claimed, sacrificed, reclaimed, and exploited by the Japanese nation state, is now proclaimed “integral” with special vehemence precisely because it is seen as secondary. Senkaku/Diaoyu, the periphery of the periphery, or the “integral territory” of other “integral territories” and therefore the feeblest unit in the nation state, is pronounced part of its essence, to be defended, if necessary, by the full force of the Japanese SDF and the US military under the Security Treaty.
  • The memory of the disastrous path onto which Japan was led over eight decades ago by insistence on “positive diplomacy” to defend the “lifeline” of inalienable territorial rights in “Man-Mo” (Manchuria-Mongolia), and ultimately China proper, has faded in Japan, but in China it is not forgotten. The uncompromising repetition of today’s no less strident but vacuous formula of koyu rights to Senkaku/Diaoyu is noted with foreboding. The fact that it is almost precisely echoed in territorial claims on all sides—by China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), Japan and Korea, and by the South China Sea states in respect of that region’s maritime zones—makes it difficult to be optimistic of any easy or early resolution.
  • The unfolding of the events of 2012 showed just how easily public opinion can be inflamed. The self-righteous insistence on exclusive ownership, by any of the three state parties or, indeed, by the “World Chinese Alliance,” is unlikely to offer a way to convert the East China Sea into one of “Peace, Cooperation and Friendship.” As one looks in vain on all sides for some trace of the political wisdom and vision to declare such a program, it grows the more likely that, should it surface, it would be denounced as “weak-kneed.” While the Japanese (and international) media denounce China for its “increasingly narrow-minded, self-interested, truculent, hyper-nationalist” stance,79 and refer to China in the context of the ocean territorial disputes of 2012 as having “thrown down the gauntlet,” 80 in many quarters Tokyo’s uncompromising and belligerent tone passes without comment.
  • As events in the South China Sea are reported to be “moving in the wrong direction,” so that “the risk of escalation is high” with the possibility of tensions rising to “irreversible” levels,81 so too in the Pacific and East China Sea the stakes are high and the focus of high levels of national sentiment on contested territories, and the absence on all sides of a readiness to negotiate, bodes ill.
  • The author expresses his gratitude for advice and critical comment to Harry Scheiber of UC Berkeley Law School, Yann-huei Song of Academia Sinica, Taiwan, Paul D’Arcy of ANU, Unryu Suganuma of J.F. Oberlin University, and to Kay Dancy of ANU for cartographical  assistance.

(full long long text and links to articles on related subjects).


Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States (Asia/Pacific/Perspectives), on amazon;

Client State: Japan in the American Embrace [Paperback], on amazon.

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