The Western Pacific is now considered by many as the world’s primary arena of economic growth and prosperity. It is also more peaceful than it has been at any time since the 19th century, but this could change due to a longstanding quarrel between China, Taiwan and Japan over a handful of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Tokyo calls this island group the Senkaku and argues that Japan gained control of it in 1895 when they were terra nullius — land belonging to no country. However, Taipei and Beijing dispute these claims. Taipei calls the islands the Diaoyutais (釣魚台群島) and argues that they belong to the Republic of China. Beijing calls them the Diaoyu Islands [釣魚島] and claims they belong to the People’s Republic of China. Both governments agree that the territory was stolen by Tokyo in the first Sino-Japanese War (1895) and should have been returned after World War II in keeping with the terms of the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Declaration.
Unlike other territories conquered during the era of Japanese imperialism, these islands were not returned to China in 1945. Rather, they were placed under US administrative control and used occasionally by the US military for target practice. In 1971, the US transferred administrative control to Japan, but emphasized that the US took no position on the sovereignty issue over the islands.
Since 1971, Beijing and Taipei have voiced their respective claims to the disputed islands on numerous occasions. But matters only began to spin out of control after a right-wing governor of Tokyo launched a drive to purchase the islands from their “private” owners. To prevent this from occurring, Japan’s central government bought them instead. These moves infuriated people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and ignited the largest anti-Japanese protests in China since 1945.
General Xu Caihou (徐才厚), one of China’s military leaders, went so far as to warn the country’s armed forces to be “prepared for any possible military combat.”
Perhaps preoccupied by the presidential election, the US has done little to defuse rising tensions in East Asia. Rather, the most sensible proposal to prevent conflict has been proffered by Taiwan — ironically one of the most diplomatically marginalized states in the world.
In August, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) proposed an “East China Sea Peace Initiative” calling on all disputants to exercise restraint, shelve controversies, engage in peaceful dialogue and observe international law. He argued that, while sovereignty cannot be divided, natural resources can be shared. Using the cooperative arrangement enjoyed by some European countries in the North Sea as an example, Ma suggested that Tokyo, Beijing and Taipei should work together to explore and develop resources in the East China Sea.
Ma’s proposal is gaining some traction. For example, Japanese officials have made conciliatory statements about Taiwan’s approach to “pending issues.”
Moreover, when asked by US lawmakers whether US President Barack Obama’s administration supports the initiative, one high-ranking official testified that the US would “welcome any collaborative and diplomatic solution that resolves this issue without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force.”
Other voices are much more enthusiastic.
Charles Tannock, a member of the European Parliament, has exclaimed that the “East China Sea Peace Initiative is a courageous and timely proposal that will hopefully bring about a permanent reduction of tension in the region.”
Although Washington does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of these islands, a US official warned recently that “the Senkakus would fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.”
This means the US has a large stake in a peaceful resolution of this dispute and should work energetically to prevent an escalation of the controversy. According to US estimates, the seabed around the disputed island group may hold as much as 100 billion barrels of oil. But there is much more than oil fueling the flames of this disagreement. For many in East Asia, Tokyo’s possession of these islands is a potent reminder of Japanese imperialism. It is for these reasons that this problem will not go away and requires thoughtful remediation. Taiwan’s proposal offers such a solution. Now that the US presidential election is over, it is time for Washington to stop sitting on the sidelines and energetically support the “East China Sea Peace Initiative.” To do otherwise could invite disaster.
Dennis Hickey is the James F. Morris Endowed Professor of Political Science and director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Missouri State University.