Diaoyu Islands

China deserves credit for sending island dispute to UN

Jonathan Power applauds China's move to send the Diaoyu Islands dispute with Japan to the UN, and says history is on the Chinese side

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 3:09am

At last someone has done something sensible in the increasingly bitter fight between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands: China has taken the issue to the United Nations.

China hasn't gone as far as sending the matter to the International Court of Justice, though if it were brave, it would. China has only asked for a geological survey by independent experts to ascertain where China's continental shelf ends. The commissioning UN organisation is probably The Law of the Sea's chamber of disputes.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines territorial waters and the exclusive economic zones, which stretch for 200 nautical miles. However, when the continental shelf extends farther, the limit extends beyond the 200 nautical miles. Most nations of the world, including China and Japan, have ratified the Law of the Sea. The US has not, although it abides by it.

The eight uninhabited islets being contested are located in waters rich with fish and perhaps oil. In 1972, the US post-war occupation returned the islands to Japan, and apparently China did not object. But according to Meiji-era documents, Japan acknowledged China as the owner in 1885.

The cocktails of the dispute are laced with China's growing animosity towards Japan. Old memories of the wartime atrocities of the occupying Japanese forces have returned to the fore. On Sunday, Japan elected in a landslide the party of Shinzo Abe, the former and incoming prime minister who tends to shun the truth about the war and thus provokes the Chinese. This is a disaster in the making.

There are two strains in Japanese political life. On one side are those who are ashamed of Japan's role in the second world war and are happy to live with Japan's post-war constitution, which outlaws the waging of war. On the other side are those who chafe under these constitutional limits on military practice and also support the writing of school textbooks to airbrush the nastier sides of Japan's history.

China is not an aggressive power and has been more put-upon than most countries. Professor Odd Arne Westad of the London School of Economics writes in his new incisive book, Restless Empire: "The remarkable fact is that Chinese borders today are almost identical to those of the Qing dynasty."

The aggression has been one way. The British reduced a good number of the Chinese to drug addiction with their imports of opium from India, enforcing its will by going to war in 1839. Early in the 20th century, China suffered from imperialist grabs for territory and markets by the British, the Americans, French, Russians and Germans.

In 1937, Japan attacked China. Much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed, and millions of Chinese, troops and civilians, lost their lives. Rape and torture by the Japanese were widespread and "comfort women" abused by the military. Without Soviet help, China would have been defeated, although US aid was very useful.

Japan has never fully apologised for the war. Some school books and other media emphasise that Japan was a victim of war, not a perpetrator. War criminals are still worshipped at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Japan should watch its step on the islands' dispute. History is not on its side.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist