09 September 2012

Nationalism and the Diaoyu Islands

This dispute is only one of many recent territorial and sea-space disputes involving the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, China and Japan. But it is an incredibly intriguing one geopolitically, as it involves citizens in both mainland China and Taiwan protesting in favour of (at this point) Taiwanese control of the Diaoyu Archipelago 釣魚台群島. Getting into the historical minefield of whose the islands actually are would be a tricky, messy, postmodern-revisionist sort of business (much like anything to do with Tibetan or Taiwanese history) and, though interesting for several unrelated reasons, ultimately only a diversion. Equally interesting and more à propos is the role that nationalism is playing in the entire dispute, as well as the legacy that imperialism continues to play. The fact that the State Department is also involving itself is likewise a matter for some concern.

Torrents of ink have already been spilt on the Scylla-and-Charybdis problem that Chinese nationalism presents for the (still-formally Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) Chinese government. China’s citizenry tend, by and large, to be more patriotic than the CCP; that same Party is wont to view that patriotism as a potential tool for legitimating itself (as one may witness in the editorial pages of news outlets like The Global Times), but is also incredibly careful not to encourage it too far, and indeed tamp it down when it gets too rowdy and jeopardises the geopolitical interests of the CCP. The same may not be said, however, of the Japanese or even the Taiwanese government: the recent (controversial) attempt by the government of Tokyo to buy the Diaoyu Islands from their private owners for ¥2.05 billion, and the recent Taiwanese Coast Guard escort of its protesters to the islands.

Japanese nationalism is, sadly, almost exactly the same fascistic beast which we had to slay during the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. The uyoku dantai 右翼團體 combine radical nationalism with what is for all intents and purposes the equivalent of Holocaust denial (essentially, the denial of war crimes committed by the Japanese military against Chinese and Korean civilians during the Second World War), territorial revanchism and a fanatical opposition to organised labour and public-sector unions, particularly the Japan Teachers Union. Some groups take it even further and seek to publicly lionise as martyrs the war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni and seek to rewrite the history of the Second World War in its entirety. As a matter of historical irony, however, the current American government is obliged to turn a blind eye to such groups, and take the Japanese government’s claims practically at face value on the international stage as a result of its military obligations for Japan’s defence. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that these Japanese right-wing groups have influential friends with a fair amount of ideological clout in the West.) The fact that even political moderates in Japan have been using the island disputes as a CYA strategy may be a troubling indication that such malign nationalism has an increasing amount of mainstream pull.

I did say that I wasn’t going to talk about claims, but there is one aspect which is intriguing and illuminating about Japan’s claim. It dates to the signing of the same Treaty of Shimonoseki which prompted the Japanese to invade and annex Taiwan, and thus carries with it the broader significance of a legacy of Japanese imperialism which has not yet been concluded. The wise course of action would be to focus upon the implications of this legacy, and question the role which we want the US government to continue playing in world affairs; as Mr Bambery puts it, there is much going on here that warrants ‘saying rather more than a “plague on both houses”’.


  1. this thing goes back even further than shimonoseki - think japanese annexation of, or prior protectorate over ryukyu, which at one time had strong ties to china. shimonoseki and san francisco were just the most recent stirrings of that pot..

  2. China's claim to the Senkakus was invented in the late 1960s and then backdated into history. That is how Chinese imperialism typically presents itself -- as "recovering" "Chinese" territory. Ditto for Tibet, Taiwan, etc. The "Taiwan" in your opening section is actually the Republic of China and its true-blue fanatics in Taiwan. "Taiwan" is not a nation and cannot own the Senkakus.

    After the Senkakus were annexed by Japan in 1895, both Chinese governments never made any claim to them nor contested the move. Nor did they ever argue there was a controversy about them. Indeed, all official texts and documents, including defense maps and school textbooks, showed the Senkakus to be Japanese until scientists announced the possibility of oil in the area. Then suddenly Taipei and Beijing announced that the islands had always belonged to "China".

    It's not complex -- it's a simple land grab by Beijing.


  3. Hi, Andrew, and welcome back to the blog! I have little difficulty believing that, of course, Japanese nationalism being what it is. From what I understand from my Chinese history classes, though, during the Qing dynasty Liuqiuguo played a role rather similar to that of Korea in their attempts to maintain a kind of balance between Japanese and Chinese interests.

    Michael, welcome to the blog, and thanks for the comment.

    I do think you have misconstrued a couple of key facts, however. First of all, the Diaoyu Islands were not under the control of Japan in the late 1960's, but were administered by the US Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (or USCAR), and were not returned to even nominal Japanese control until 1972. Even then, their return to Japanese control was contested both by the People's Republic and by the Republic of China.

    Second, I am unsure as to what you are trying to argue with your point about the status of Taiwan. I am (as are, I would hope, most of my readers) well aware of the political dimensions of that argument; hence my 'at this point' above. Same with the status of Tibet. At the moment, the legal status of Taiwan is disputed in a way which Tibet's status is not - many countries still recognise Taiwan as the legitimate government of China; not one country currently recognises Tibet as a sovereign nation.

    But the point is that the status of Taiwan is precisely what makes the situation 'complex', as it were. During the Qing Dynasty (prior to the 1895 settlement), the Diaoyu Islands were administered by (the Qing province of) Taiwan, not by Liuqiuguo. Thus, both the ROC and the PRC do in fact have legitimate legal grounds for the claim that the islands should not have been turned over to Japan in 1972, but rather should have been turned over to ROC control as per the Potsdam agreement. If you want to argue that Taiwan is or ought to be independent of China or that the ROC government wasn't legitimate, that becomes a different matter.

    Simplistically dismissing the demand for the Diaoyu Islands to be restored to Taiwan as a 'land grab' therefore seems rather unwarranted.