Diaoyu Islands

The Diaoyu archipelago is no place for patriot games

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am

Like many other fellow post-war babies, the Diaoyu Islands is an issue close to my heart. When the Defend Diaoyu Islands campaign first started in the early 1970s, I was teaching in the University of Hong Kong and was not directly involved in this student movement, but it hurt me knowing that some of my students were badly beaten up by the police during the demonstrations. Just before the handover, one of my students, Chan Yuk-cheung, drowned while swimming ashore one of the Diaoyu Islands.

These memories were sad, but sadder was the knowledge that such patriotic bravery and sacrifices were in fact meaningless as these incidents will not change anything. These are simply political statements from some helpless small folks who hate to see the loss of Chinese territory to Japan, which at that time would seem inevitable given the relative power of the two countries.

There is a Chinese tradition of taking a long-term historical perspective. The map of China has expanded and contracted many times, and as long as we are still here fighting, one day the tide will turn.

I read with amusement recent events related to the Diaoyu Islands. It is now the Japanese turn to do silly and meaningless things: raising funds to purchase the islands, taking tours there, organising fishing contests, planning to inhabit and develop the islands. These are happening while Japanese ships were being turned away by Chinese frigates, while just a few years ago it was the other way round.

I can discern desperateness when I see it, and some Japanese are now clearly very desperate that, after 40 years, their attempt to grab the so-called Senkaku Islands is now destined to be foiled.

Knowing the Japanese psyche, there is real danger that some might attempt to perform really desperate acts dragging both countries into military conflict, even war. It is a very grave matter when the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda proclaims his intention to 'nationalise' or even buy part of the Senkaku Islands.

This is a serious provocation from the Japanese side, and China may well retaliate. A hundred years after a humiliating defeat by the Japanese navy, public sentiment in China is quite willing to have a face-off with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands for a vendetta. The situation is quite precarious.

It is more so when the US unwittingly jumped into these muddy waters and invoked its joint defence treaty with Japan. The Americans backed down when China took a tough stance in its stand-off with the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Japan will soon find out that when it comes to a real war with China, the US, which is still stuck in the Middle East and Afghanistan, cannot be counted on.

On its own, an island nation can never take on a continent and win. The longer the conflicts last, the more certain the result. Japan has tried 70 years ago but failed, and there is really no need to make the same mistake the second time.

Again, it is the Chinese who can afford a longer perspective because Japan has now clearly passed its prime and will weaken very rapidly, especially after the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear leak.

More importantly, there is really no point going to war over some remote islands even if there might be vast oil and gas reserves nearby. China has stressed time and again its willingness to co-develop these resources for mutual benefit, and the overall cost will be very much lower.

It is not in Japan's national interest, both in the long and short term, to contain China. If the Americans want to do so, let them do it on their own. Ever-aspiring Japan should not resign itself forever to being a pawn in America's hegemonic chessboard.

To resolve this contentious issue, both countries need to establish a creative solution. Should China and Japan jointly declare the islands together with surrounding waters a demilitarised zone, military conflict will immediately become a non-option and neither country will lose anything, and certainly not any face. They then will have to sit down and talk because this is the only option there.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development