To the outside world, the standoff over the Senkaku cluster of islands, Diaoyu in Chinese, is so bizarre as to draw comparisons with Gulliver's Travels. How can giants China and Japan, not to mention dynamo Taiwan, be at daggers drawn over such miniscule flecks of rock?
It seems that almost every other day Japan's Air-Self Defense Force scrambles jets to intercept Chinese military aircraft over the Senkakus, while down below Japanese coast guard ships exchange megaphone threats with Chinese and Taiwanese vessels to leave each other's territorial waters--immediately!
The Senkakus are located 140 kilometers from Taiwan's Pengjia islet, 330 km from the Chinese mainland, 170 km from Japan's Ishigaki island and 410 kms from Okinawa main island.
The largest of the five islands, Uotsuri (Diaoyu Dao) has a land area of 3.6 square km; the smallest, Taisho (Chiwei Yu), measures only 40 square meters. Three rock outcrops are too insignificant to qualify as islands. The only notable inhabitants of the Senkakus are moles and endangered albatrosses, and on the twin mountains of Uotsuri, a herd of feral goats.
It is what surrounds the Senkakus that stirs avarice. Underneath waters teeming with fish and sharks are thought to lie valuable oil deposits.
A high probability exists that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in the world. It is also one of the few large continental shelves of the world that has remained untested by the drill, owing to military and political factors, a United Nations-sponsored research project reported in 1969.
Taiwan wasted no time in asserting its right to the seabed resources, and signed a contract with America's Gulf Oil to develop the continental shelf, including the Senkakus. The U.S. government intervened to stop the deal, and a Taiwanese flag planted on Uotsuri main island in September 1970 by journalists from the China Times was removed.
Not long after, first Beijing, then Taipei, publicly asserted their claims to sovereignty of the Senkakus for the first time. Japan's Foreign Ministry cites the decades-long delay in issuing these challenges as proof that their only interest was oil, and quotes Chinese premier Zhou En-lai telling his Japanese counterpart Kakuei Tanaka on Sept. 27, 1972, "It's not good to discuss this now. It became an issue because of the oil out there. If there wasn't oil, neither Taiwan nor the United States would make this an issue."
The Foreign Ministry's spin is somewhat disingenuous.
The United States had been responsible for the Senkakus as part of its postwar occupation of Okinawa, and in 1971 the Republic of China (Taiwan) pressed the United States not to include the Senkakus in the reversion of Okinawa that year. The administration of Richard Nixon rejected this and handed the Senkakus back to Japan. The issue of sovereignty of the Senkakus was left unresolved, however, with the United States saying that it passed no judgment on the conflicting claims of Tokyo, Taipei and Beijing.
"But that is nonsense since it gives islands to Japan. How can we get a more neutral position?" Henry Kissinger commented at the time.
This "nonsense" has persisted as Washington's policy on the Senkakus, with the further twist of being committed to their defense under the Security Treaty, on the tortuous grounds that Japan administers the islands even if the State Department believes it may not rightfully own them.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry's excerpts from the Tanaka-Zhou discussion also lack context. The two leaders were negotiating the establishment of diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing, in the wake of Nixon's "shock" visit to China that same year. Beijing had already matched Taipei's formal claim to the Senkakus. Far more pressing issues must have weighed on Zhou's mind, not least the havoc and destruction wrought on China by Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution.
The more one delves into the history of the Senkakus, on which there is now a prodigious corpus of literature, the more noticeable becomes this lack of context.
Take the seemingly straightforward argument that the Senkakus were terra nullius, vacant territory, before Japan "discovered" the islands in 1884 and incorporated them into Okinawa Prefecture on January 14, 1895. The Chinese say they discovered them first, and cite references in the chronicles of envoys from the Ming and Qing dynasty courts to the Ryukyu Kingdom, which from 1609 was a vassal of both China and Japan.
Japanese scholars such as Shigeyoshi Ozaki have made light work of such claims, pointing out that the islands were merely navigational way points on the sea voyage to the Ryukyus, and there is no evidence that they were ever inhabited or controlled by Chinese.
When Qing envoy Wang Ji wrote in 1683 that his ship crossed the "outskirts," "trench" or a "boundary" soon after passing Chiwei island (Taisho-to), and performed rituals that included the sacrifice to the sea of a live pig and sheep, he was presumably referring to the Kuroshio Current, which causes the water to turn from turquoise color to deep black.
Ozaki points out that the Chinese would not have regarded this as a geographic or territorial boundary between the Ryukyus and China, but rather as a supernatural deity to be propitiated.
Ozaki quotes another Qing envoy writing in 1800: "This Black Trench must not be taken lightly. One can hear a great roar from below, and a dragon hiding there may leap into the sky like a cloud and engulf us all. To appease the goddess of the sea and secure safe passage, live pigs and sheep must be thrown into the sea, and men must behave like soldiers about to fight a war."
What apologists for Japanese sovereignty omit to mention is that the islands were long unknown to Japanese, except for wako pirates in the 1500s. Even the Japanese name Senkaku dates from only 1900, an academic translation of "Pinnacle" Islands, as the rocky formations were called by British seamen in the early 19th century.
Japan acquired the islands in a period when China was being bullied and picked apart by other imperialist powers, starting with the 1839-42 First Opium War with Britain. Between 1872 and 1879, Japan took advantage of China's weakness to take over and finally annex the Ryukyu Kingdom, long a suzerain of both China and Japan.
Tatsuhiro Koga, an adventurous wheeler-dealer, sailed to the islands in search of seashells for the new button industry in Kobe. In 1885 he petitioned the governor of Okinawa, as the Ryukyus had been renamed, to develop one of the islands. The governor urged the Home Ministry in Tokyo to plant national markers so they could be incorporated into Okinawa Prefecture.
Home Minister Aritomo Yamagata was in favor, but Foreign Minister Kaoru Inoue feared Chinese retribution. Japan and China were vying for control of Korea, still a tributary vassal of China, and China at the time was still the stronger military power. There had already been fruitless border negotiations following the Ryukyu annexation. If it had been concluded, the deal would have granted China the Ryukyu islands of Miyako and Yaeyama, as well as the Senkakus, in exchange for Japanese commercial rights in China.
"Chinese newspapers have been reporting rumors of our intention of occupying islands belonging to China located next to Taiwan," Inoue wrote. "At this time, if we were to publicly place national markers, this must necessarily invite China's suspicion."
Rivalry in Korea eventually led to the outbreak of war on August 1, 1894. Qing forces were routed in decisive battles, and in January 1895 the Japanese Cabinet issued a secret order to incorporate what became known as the Senkaku Islands into Japan. Two months later China surrendered, and in the Treaty of Shimonoseki of April 17, ceded Formosa (Taiwan) and the Liaoning Peninsula to Japan.
Japan emphasizes that it acquired the Senkakus before Taiwan, which Japan was forced to relinquish as a colony in 1945. Taiwanese scholar Han-yi Shaw is equally adamant that both the Senkakus and Taiwan were "war booty." He quotes from Koga's autobiography, in which the entrepreneur attributes Japan's ability to annex the Senkakus to "the gallant military victory of our imperial forces."
A few months after the war with China ended, the central government granted Koga a 30-year lease, free of charge, to the four biggest islands. Koga built a plant on Uotsuri main island to process dried bonito. As many as 200 seasonal workers from Okinawa were hired to work at the plant, and on other business ventures, such as collecting albatross feathers for use as down or to make women's hats, planting camphor trees, and stuffing brown boobies and other sea birds for sale to collectors.
Koga died in 1918. His son Zenji inherited, and when the lease on the four islands expired in 1926, he received title from the government. The bonito factory was closed in 1940, and in 1945, the United States assumed administrative control, along with Okinawa. From 1958 until 1971, the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands paid Zenji Koga $11,000 each year to use Kuba island as a bombing range for the U.S. Navy, along with tiny Taisho island, which has remained under state ownership since 1895.
Zenji Koga was childless, so in 1978 he sold his four islands to the Kurihara family. Kunioki Kurihara acquired Uotsuri, Kitakojima and Minamikojima, while his sister got Kuba.
Japan’s Defense Ministry continues to lease Kuba for an undisclosed sum, and to sub-lease it to the U.S. Navy under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. No bombs have been dropped on Kuba or Taisho since 1978, but the U.S. military still manages the two islands, and Japanese citizens are forbidden to land without its permission.
In July 1978, soon after Kunioki Kurihara became owner, members of the ultranationalist Japan Youth Association (Nihon Seinensha) affiliated to Sumiyoshi-rengo, Japan’s second-largest yakuza syndicate, landed on Uotsuri and built a lighthouse to advertise Japanese sovereignty.
The rightists returned to the island in 1996 to erect a taller lighthouse. As intended, this inflamed activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who sailed to the Senkakus to demonstrate the sovereignty claims of China and Taiwan. A Chinese from Hong Kong died while attempting to swim to the islands.
In a bid to prevent such landings, the Japanese government in 2002 decided to lease the three biggest islands from Kunioki Kurihara for ¥23 million a year.
Kurihara, who owns land and property in Saitama Prefecture, is an old acquaintance of Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalistic author turned politician. Kurihara once worked as a driver to the late Tsusai Sugahara, a businessman and "fixer" reputed to have been Ishihara's mentor, according to journalist and author Yukio Wani.
Kurihara became heavily in debt to Japanese banks, Wani has reported in Shukan Kinyobi magazine, and offered to sell the three Senkaku islands to the Tokyo metropolitan government, of which Ishihara was the elected governor.
In April 2012, Ishihara told a meeting of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington that he would raise private money to buy the islands, and proposed building on them a port, telecommunications base and weather station. An online appeal gathered ¥1.4 billion from the Japanese public.
Wittingly or not, the prime minister at the time, Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan, walked straight into the trap sprung by Ishihara. On July 7, Noda announced that his government intended to buy back the islands. Reaction was swift from the Chinese foreign ministry: "No one will ever be allowed to buy and sell China's sacred territory." Two months later, Noda's Cabinet sealed the purchase from Kurihara of the islands for ¥2.05 billion, an amount that was four times the initial estimate.
The Noda government claimed the purpose was to stop Ishihara from using the islands to further provoke China, although Noda may also have wished to placate DPJ right-wingers ahead of a party leadership election.
The outcome delighted Ishihara but infuriated China. Xinhua, the state news agency, said Tokyo had "thrown bilateral relations into a scalding pot." Anti-Japan protests spread across China during August and September 2012. Japanese residents in Shanghai were assaulted. Protesters ripped the Hinomaru flag off the Japanese ambassador's car.
In November 2013, Beijing declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone, where unidentified aircraft risk being intercepted by Chinese fighter jets, which included the Senkaku islands. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine the following month raised tension even further, since China regards Yasukuni as a totem of Japanese militarism.
Since then there has been no real improvement in relations. Abe and President Xi Jinping have yet to meet, and there are continuing fears that a minor military incident over the Senkakus could spark a war.
What hope is there of easing confrontation? If both sides merely insist on the justness of their claims to sovereignty, the answer is very little.
A referendum, like the one held last year on the disputed Falkland Islands (Malvinas), in which 92 percent of votes cast were in favor of remaining part of the United Kingdom, is out of the question, as the Senkakus are uninhabited.
The wisest course of action would be to shelve the Senkaku dispute for the sake of the broader relationship. The Japanese government now finds it convenient to deny it, but this is exactly how Beijing and Tokyo for a long time handled the sensitive issue--by choosing not to discuss it.
Reinhard Drifte, emeritus professor of Japanese politics at Newcastle University, cites testimony by former senior bureaucrats involved in top-level talks between Japan and China to normalize diplomatic relations in the 1970s that prove such a tacit understanding existed between Beijing and Tokyo.
"Both sides agreed to shelve the territorial issue while in no way abandoning their claims to the islands, otherwise there would not have been a normalization of diplomatic relations in 1972 or a Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978," Drifte concluded.
As recently as 2008, the two governments agreed to jointly develop the Chunxiao gas field that straddles their maritime boundary in the East China Sea, but there has been no progress since then in fulfilling the agreement.
China is the world's largest consumer of energy and its attempts to exploit oil beneath the South China Sea have also led to disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.
There has been no drilling to confirm the 1969 report of potentially huge oil reserves near the Senkaku Islands, a finding based only on sonar readings of the seabed. Extracting the oil would be difficult, given that the seabed is beneath 200 meters of water, the prevalence of swift sea currents and typhoons, and the need to build a pipeline.
"If an oil spill were to take place, it could result in serious contamination of the marine environment," warns Toshio Okuhara, emeritus professor of Kokushikan University. "The cost of cleaning up such contamination could easily exceed the amount we could earn by developing the resources in the first place."
A more responsible approach would be to preserve the pristine environment of the Senkakus for future generations--not only for the benefit of Japanese, but visitors and scientists of all nationalities.
Ishigaki, the island of Okinawa responsible for administering the Senkakus, proposed last year that the islands be added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. This was immediately denounced by China. "The underlying purpose of the move is to get disguised recognition from an international organization on Japan's sovereignty over China's Diaoyu Islands," Xinhua stated in a commentary. It would only "escalate the tension between China and Japan."
Ideally, the Senkakus would be declared a marine nature park to be jointly administered by Japan, China and Taiwan. In order for this to be realized, the question of sovereignty would have to be shelved, in effect by a return to the status quo ante.
The alternative of a legally binding compromise, in which sovereignty of the Senkakus would be shared, similar to the condominium between Japan and Russia on Sakhalin (Karafuto) island between 1854 and 1875, would likely prove impossible, given that neither Japan, China or Taiwan can be expected to surrender their exclusive claims.
This may sound far-fetched, but the risk of war demands bold and imaginative preventive action. If war between two giants bound by culture, trade and investment--some 23,000 Japanese companies operate in China, employing 10 million Chinese workers--also sounds improbable, recall that 100 years ago people also scoffed at the possibility of war between Britain and Germany.
Abe has enjoyed support from the Barack Obama administration for having faithfully implemented or promoted policies long desired by the United States. These include the controversial state secrets law passed last year, which protects confidential information shared by Washington; negotiations on a trade partnership pact; and measures to bolster Japan's military, most notably by reinterpreting Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense with the United States.
Such loyalty has been tainted by Abe's irrepressible nationalism, expressed in provocative rhetoric and symbolic actions that antagonize China and South Korea and diminish, rather than enhance, Japan's security. Washington's nightmare is that a territorial tiff over some barren islands could quickly spiral out of hand, dragging the United States by its treaty obligations to Japan into a war with China, the nuclear-armed heart of the global economy.
While Obama has reaffirmed that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty covers the Senkakus, this is only because the United States recognizes Japan's de facto control of the islands. Japan would do well to remember that the United States pointedly refuses to endorse Japan's de jure sovereignty.
American pressure on Japan to defuse the Senkaku dispute is therefore not just conceivable, but highly probable. Indeed, thanks to the U.S. Navy's lease of Kuba and Taisho islands, the United States already is a party to the problem.
Is there any likelihood of Abe or Xi--let alone President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan--agreeing to shelve claims to ownership of the Senkakus in favor of some form of cohabitation and joint management?
That would require statesmanship rarely seen since the epochal negotiations of the 1970s. The outside world would certainly applaud, and breathe a loud sigh of relief, but what would be the reaction at home? Would compromise be seen as a diplomatic triumph or a sellout? Would Abe, Xi and Ma emerge politically strengthened or weakened?
One perverse source for hope is that Abe's signature economic policies are in trouble, making him more vulnerable to pressure for a compromise. Consumer spending has plummeted following the increase in the consumption tax. Wages have not kept up with rising inflation. Japan's once mighty export machine, which has seen its market share halve in the past 20 years, still shows no sign of recovery, in spite of further yen devaluation.
"Abenomics" is no longer the wonder that it was in 2013, and public concern over collective defense has already dented approval of Abe's Cabinet to its lowest level since taking office.
Would a "magnanimous" offer to China and Taiwan on managing the Senkakus boost Abe's popularity? Probably--although it would involve swallowing a lot of pride.
Xi is just as nationalistic as Abe, but has no wish to see saber-rattling over the Senkakus turn into war. He must also contend with a slowing Chinese economy, unrest in Hong Kong and international distrust of China's military intentions. China's image would certainly be burnished abroad by a deal over the Senkakus, and with skillful management, and a muzzled media, it might be presented to the Chinese public as a great diplomatic coup.
Ma would be delighted to have Taiwan invited to share management of the Senkakus on the same basis as China. Would this be vetoed by Beijing, as implying diplomatic recognition of its "rebel province"? That would be for Taiwanese and mainland Chinese to sort out for themselves. If they are not to repudiate each other's claims to the Senkakus, they too will need to cooperate and compromise.
"Blessed are the peacemakers" states the Bible. If the wild goats of Uotsuri were like the wise Houyhnhnm horses in Gulliver’s Travels, one can be sure they would vigorously voice their assent.
Peter McGill Independent writer specializing in East Asia
Peter McGill has been writing about Japan for more than 30 years. He was a North-East Asia correspondent and Tokyo correspondent at The Observer of London (1983-1992).