The dispute over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — has suddenly intensified, raising eyebrows everywhere. However, taking a look at post-war history, this development should have been easily predictable.
Germany, one of World War II’s aggressors, has displayed a surprising pragmatism when it comes to territorial issues. After the war, Germany was split in two and the land east of the Oder and Neisse rivers — East Prussia, Silesia and other areas — was occupied by the Soviet Union and Poland. This area was about three times as big as Taiwan, and constituted almost one-third of Germany’s territory. More than 8 million Germans were forced to move west.
Former German chancellor Willy Brandt served as mayor of West Berlin and knew the horrors of the Cold War, so when he became chancellor in 1969, he actively promoted rapprochement with the Warsaw Pact through his Neue Ostpolitik (New Eastern Policy). He understood that the territorial issue was the fundamental problem, and that as long as West Germany tried to regain lost territory, the Soviet Union and Poland would not be willing to enter into any kind of compromise. He therefore resolutely recognized the Oder-Neisse line as the border between East Germany and Poland, which led to a thaw in the relationship between East and West.
This decision was met with a lot of domestic opposition, but Brandt never gave in to the pressure. This pragmatism reassured the Soviet Union, which agreed to give East Germany and Poland more freedom to improve bilateral relations with West Germany. By 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, unification was insight, which raised the question if a new Germany would recognize the Oder and the Neisse as the border with Poland. At first, then-chancellor Helmut Kohl hesitated on keeping the border, but when public opinion expressed concern over Poland’s reaction and kept calling for continued recognition of the status quo, he relented, although not everyone accepted that decision. Big Silesian refugee organizations kept repeating their old demands that the lost territory should be reclaimed, although politicians and the media wanted to avoid any provocations.
Compared with Germany, Japan, which was also guilty of heinous crimes during the war, was very lucky. Its territory was left untouched and it only lost four small northern islands occupied by the Soviet Union.
China’s civil war pitted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) against each other, and to legitimize their claim of being the legal government of China, both sides tried hard to gain Japanese recognition, which allowed Japan to keep all its territory.
Taking a closer look, one of the differences between Japan and Germany lies in their attitude toward their war crimes. When Brandt went to Warsaw to improve relations, he knelt down to express repentance, and German society also reflected over the Nazis’ sins. Many thought that the German division and loss of territory was history’s punishment and that Germany should accept the result.
According to an article in last week’s issue of The Economist, China and Japan have roughly the same amount of coastline, but Japan claims an exclusive economic zone that is five times the size of China’s. For Japan, then, losing the Diaoyutais would constitute a limited loss. China may not be prepared to intiate a war over the dispute, but the many protests in China will damage Japan’s long-term interests.