Otto: Apes do not read philosophy.I have a standard paragraph about the impossibility of trying to accommodate the international claims of the present Chinese government. It hinges on the hopeless anachronicity of Chinese assertions:
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it.
-- A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
"China's is only major government, aside from government of Bolivia, that insists its 19th maximum area of administration should delineate its natural borders. The key difference is that Bolivia lost its access to the sea, condemning the country and its people to isolation from world prosperity. As a consequence the Bolivian claims, though retrograde, at least engender some degree of sympathy."
My illustration is not particularly strong, however. There are probably a few other countries contesting for territories and Exclusive Economic Zones based upon the legacy of the grand Era Of Empire -- but none so blatantly, loudly and dangerously as the current Beijing regime.
Which is why I am glad that Sinologist J. Mohan Malik of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies has produced a long essay for The Diplomat examining the modern Chinese failure, intentional or not, to accept the premises for the proper limits on the interactions of nation-states.
It has been this anachronicity, or even a-chronocity, of China's claims that justifies the current Japanese government position of there being no dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkakus. Many extremely competent, even visionary security policy practitioners have argued that Japan would be conceding nothing of substance by admitting the existence of a dispute and indeed would be strengthening its position as regards both policing the Senkakus and bringing international pressure to bear on the can of worms that is Dokdo (Link). In theory, maybe, but trying to reposition Japanese assertions of sovereignty within a framework of international law seems pointless if the Chinese side is talking about rights and claims predating and outside the Westphalian framework.
With the Chinese officials lumbering about, ostensibly trying to craft coalitions of the unwilling against nations arguing the validity of their own claims (Link) the best course for the Japanese government is to just sit tight and wait for the next bout of Chinese government overreach -- based largely, in Malik's view, upon a inability to accept discontinuities in the conduct of international relations.
In the grander scheme, China's officials and China's defenders are frequently adept at quoting principles of international law in order to justify Chinese behavior. They just seem unclear on the point of the whole enterprise. Whether intentionally or not, they fail to understand that international law is not an instrument of state power. It is a replacement of the exercise of power. The paradox of great power -- and a great one it is, for its spares humankind from an eternity of horror -- is that it bides longest in the hands that wield it the least.