Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Japan's Island Conflicts: What, Where, Why?

A few days ago a friend mailed me:

"Why such a crisis in between Japan and China? Where are we? Where are we heading? Is there a competition for regional leadership? Or are we fooled while something else is happening or coming?"

Sourabh Gupta believes that everything is all a show: that the foreign ministries are all aware where the limits are. So move on, make money, nothing is happening here. (Link)

Those of us watching the extraordinary images of yesterday's non-lethal reenactment of the Battle of Trafalgar (Video J - warnings on link rot apply) in the waters about the Senkakus might be less than confident about the ability of career bureaucrats of the region keeping matters within limits.

Indeed, even prior to yesterday's free-for-all in between a smattering of JCG vessels, 40 Taiwanese fishing boats and 12 Taiwan coast guard escorts, there were plenty of reasons to believe that the governments of the regions do not have matters under control.

One example is very helpfully provided by Mr. Gupta himself. He links to a translated Yomiuri Shimbun article detailing the internal deliberations of the Cabinet over how to best proceed following the government's purchase of the islands from their private Japanese owner. Plans were ranked A to H in terms of likelihood to provoke, "A" being the doing of absolutely nothing and "H" being the deployment of Self Defense Forces on the islands. Prime Minister Noda, who likely wanted to deflect domestic criticism that the government was doing nothing, favored Plan C, which was -- and I am not making this up -- replacing the incandescent bulb in the Uotsurijima's lighthouse with an LED bulb. Foreign Minister Gemba Ko'ichiro and Deputy Prime Minister Okada Katsuya talked the PM out of this plan, arguing that any physical act would be too much for the Chinese government to bear. (E)

This is the level of crazy we are at -- where the changing of a light bulb requires a Cabinet-level decision...

...and no, the foregoing the replacement of a navigational aid's current light source with a brighter, longer-lasting and more energy-efficient one in the end did not diminish one wit the extent to which the Chinese government lost its marbles over the island purchase.

Where is this headed? Ask the government of China. For all the cinematic grandeur of yesterday's maritime encounter, the government of Taiwan has yet to match its inaction with words. While President Ma Ying-jeou did praise those aboard the fishing vessels for their patriotism and those in the Taiwan coast guard for their devotion to duty (E) the government of Taiwan has so far avoided either threatening Japan or accusing the government of Japan of fomenting a state of crisis.

Not that it will not take an age, if that will be enough, to repair the damage yesterday's sea battle will have on Taiwan's previously vital relationship with Japan's right wing. The government of Taiwan will count the costs -- and find them huge.

The government of the People's Republic, however, has talked itself into a corner, ratcheting up the level of rhetoric so high that whoever is unfortunate enough to take over the reins of government from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will have to either have to demolish the Sino-Japanese relationship or engineer a deeply wounding climb-down.

Not a great way to start what is supposed to be a decade in power.

As for Japan's other inflamed island dispute, the South Koreans, already in the international doghouse for allowing its obsession over the Dokdo/Takeshima issue to mar the Olympics, yesterday raised their delusion level a notch, with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan taking his turn at the podium at the United Nations to simultaneously support and denounce the use of international law for the use of solving international political disputes. (E)

The English language readout of the UN presentation is a study in self-absorption and victimhood:
3. Minister Kim emphasized that the rule of law should be based on indispensable values such as justice, morality, territorial integrity and sovereignty. He also highlighted the rule of law should not be used as an instrument of powerful nations to coerce weak nations as shown in the (sic) history; or one to advance political agendas.

4. Before Minister Kim's remark, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba took the floor to state that "The International Court of Justice(ICJ) is an important instrument to resolve the international disputes peacefully, and I call on every member states (sic) to accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ."

※ 67 countries out of 193 UN member states in total, accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, stipulated in the second clause of Article 36.
- The US, China, France, Russia(permanent members of the UN Security Council), Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia are among those countries which have yet to accept the ICJ's compulsory jurisdiction.
[An aside, but clearly MOFAT-ROK and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have different standards when it comes to English-language press releases. MOFA would discipline officers and their supervisors for releasing a text like the above.]

In a side bilateral meeting, the South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers had what seemed to be extremely cordial talks (E). With the South Korean Foreign Minister to come out from the bilateral meeting and to say that historical issues -- i.e., the behavior Japanese Imperial Forces and the national government of Japan during the period 1868 to 1945 -- should be brought before the UN (J), one cannot fault Japanese news media for finding a zero-sum game underway, with Sino-South Korean friendliness coming at Japan's expense.

Someone, perhaps Mr. Gupta, will have to reassure me that the South Koreans are not so stupid as to make common cause with China against Japan.

Why all are all these different island disputes coming to a head right now? A full answer to that question would fill a book....and needs to be left for another day.

Essential reading on the outlook for the immediate future is Stephanie Kleine-Ahlebrant's Foreigh Policy article "Dangerous Waters" (Link). Her pessimistic conclusion: China's recent moves in submissions to international organizations guarantee a constant Chinese presence in waters Japan considers its own. That in addition to fighting off a crowd of ships from Taiwan, the JCG had to keep an eye on 10 Chinese fisheries and maritime safety agency ships sailing in the same waters indicates that Japan is in for long, enervating and expensive confrontation with its larger, resentful and possibly ungovernable neighbor.

China's leadership, for reasons both temporary and potentially permanent, seems to have taken to abandoning Deng Xiaoping's advice to leave the issue of the sovereignty of the Senkakus to a later and wiser generation. Instead, the leadership seems to be acting on the geology lesson at the heart of the movie The Shawshank Redemption: all one needs to break through to what one's heart desires is time and pressure.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan is in the process of selecting a new leader. Ishiba Shigeru and former prime minister Abe Shinzo, both of them the hardest of the hardliners in the five-way race, survived the first round of voting, the one that combined the votes of local chapters and members of the Diet. Ishiba ran away with the votes in the local chapters, winning over 50% of the local votes. Abe, however, squeaked into the second round with a strong second to Ishihara Nobuteru among the members of the Diet.

In the runoff between the two first round leaders, the decision is in the hands of the members of the Diet alone. Given that Abe has a history of failure and collapse, the election lights are shining on Ishiba.

No comments: