Diaoyu Islands

For some, sabre-rattling over the Diaoyus/Senkakus not in vain

Lex Zhao analyses the zero-sum dispute, and hopes it will one day serve as a useful lesson

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

A total change of direction has occurred on the Diaoyus/Senkakus dispute. On January 18, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed opposition to "any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration" over the islands. Since then, a Japanese convoy led by New Komeito party chief Natsuo Yamaguchi has visited China, carrying Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's letter to Xi Jinping , and Xi has held talks with Yamaguchi.

Yet, just a few days before, leaders from both nations were sending jet fighters to the disputed area.

You may wonder what all the fuss has been about. An anatomy of the winners and losers would help. The winners include: First, Shintaro Ishihara, the former Tokyo governor who initiated purchase of the disputed islands, with the real goal of rearming the Japanese Self-Defence Forces and helping the Liberal Democratic Party regain political power.

Second, the United States, which got to station F-22 stealth fighters, Osprey helicopters and Patriot missiles on different islands throughout Japan. Not long ago, thousands of Okinawans staged several large demonstrations against US troops there. Now it seems these troops will stay in Japan for the next 50 years or more.

Third, the government of China, which has successfully directed public anger towards Japan and the US, away from domestic scandals and suspicion of high-level corruption, such as the claims made against Wen Jiabao's family.

Of course, in a zero-sum game - as is usually the case with a territorial dispute - there will be losers. These include: the Democratic Party of Japan, which lost the December election; ordinary Chinese and Japanese, who must pay not only for the increases in defence spending for decades to come, but also for the drastic drop in mutual trade, investment and travel, not to mention the increase in mutual distrust.

Both China and Japan have long coastlines, each with thousands of unmanned little islands like the Diaoyus/Senkakus. Even if there were billions of dollars of mineral and oil reserves, it could cost billions to extract them.

Hopefully, Clinton's warning will be a wake-up call to all parties claiming indispensable and non-negotiable sovereignty, opening their eyes to the danger of war and an arms race, and eventually triggering co-operation among the countries involved.

Then the Diaoyus/Senkakus dispute may become a useful learning process, leading to long-term peace in the region. That way, even the temporary losers - the general public - can some day hope to become winners.

Lex Zhao is a professor of economics at Kobe University in Japan.