When a friend of mine was a little boy in Taiwan, and his parents fought, his father would run onto the street to scream at his mother, who was still inside, so that the neighbours would hear all his complaints. His father, from inland China, had joined Chiang Kai-shek’s army to fight against the Japanese invasion in 1937. When the Japanese surrendered, he fought the communists. When the communists won, he fled to Taiwan. Although his father’s behaviour was atrocious, my friend knew it was the result of the trauma of war and exile. In the end, my friend’s mother could bear it no longer and left. There are two points about that story that relate to the crisis unfolding in north-east Asia: history matters, and so does face.
Both Japan and China have laid claim to a group of islands in the East China Sea. On 23 November last year, China unilaterally declared that it was expanding its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the islands Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. China would subject any aircraft that failed to get clearance first to “emergency defensive measures”. Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, expressed emphatic concern about the potential threat to regional peace. In the Asian context, by choosing to call in China’s ambassador she acted like my friend’s father, yelling from the street. Then, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, pugilistic instincts kicking in, joined her there. He proclaimed that Australia is a “strong ally of Japan” (a claim made more extraordinary for being non-factual) and KO-ed any suggestion that taking sides might hurt economic ties: “China trades with us because it is in China’s interest to trade with us.”
Days later, the Fairfax correspondent Peter Hartcher reported from the third annual Australia–China forum in Canberra that it was clear that “Chinese officials believed the prime minister had escalated the disagreement merely by restating the government’s position”.
Bishop made her first official visit to Beijing the following week. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, used the photo op before their meeting, normally an occasion for an exchange of pleasantries, to state that Chinese people across the board were “deeply dissatisfied” with Australia’s public criticism, which jeopardised “bilateral mutual trust” and relations. Bishop wore a stunning blue outfit and a stunned expression, but maintained her courteous smile. It couldn’t have been easy. Professor Stephen FitzGerald, who was Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, told me that he had never seen a senior Chinese official “air a disagreement in this way” – not even, significantly, “in meetings with Japanese at difficult times in their relations”. Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Canada, Germany, the European Union and Vietnam had also voiced concern at the ADIZ announcement, but we alone copped such blowback.
China’s slapdown was the result of an accumulation of grievances, including our government’s mixed signals on Chinese investment in Australia. But top of the list was Abbott’s conspicuous cozying up to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; Abbott even described Japan as Australia’s “best friend in Asia”. Commentators in both China’s official press and lively blogosphere accused Australia of “taking sides” in a dispute in which we have no direct interest, even aligning against China at the behest of our American masters. The kindest thing the Chinese have said about Abbott and Bishop is that they are inexperienced novices.
At the centre of the deepening international crisis – mirrored by other disputes between China and its neighbours in the East China Sea – are five or so uninhabitable rocks dispersed over a patch of sea on the edge of the Chinese continental shelf. The ANU historian and Japan scholar Gavan McCormack has done extensive research into the history of Senkaku/Diaoyu. Islets covering less than 7 square kilometres in total, they first appeared in 14th-century historical records as markers on maritime routes, linking coastal China with what was then the archipelago kingdom of Ryukyu (called Okinawa by the Japanese). Ryukyu was a tributary state of the Chinese empire. In 1879, Japan invaded Ryukyu, taking it by force. China strongly protested. Japan favourably considered a Chinese proposal to split the Ryukyu islands into three groups: one under Japanese sovereignty, one to be ceded to China and one retaining its independence as a kingdom. But negotiations collapsed and Japan assumed control. Later, following the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, Japan quietly annexed the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as well.
In 1943, the United States’ president, Franklin Roosevelt, considered China’s claim on not just the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands but all of Okinawa so strong that he twice offered them all to the Chinese president, Chiang Kai-shek, as part of any postwar settlement. Chiang declined. Roosevelt, Chiang and Winston Churchill’s Cairo Declaration of that year proclaimed that the Allies’ purpose was “that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied” since 1914, “and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed [and] in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” Following Japan’s defeat in 1945, the US administered Ryukyu/Okinawa from 1951 to 1972.
The US unilaterally proclaimed the world’s first ADIZ in 1950, covering North America. It set up a second one over Japan during its postwar occupation and another over South Korea during the 1950–53 Korean War – itself the result of a messy Cold War solution to Japan’s brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The US also ruled the seas around Senkaku/Diaoyu, using two islands as bombing ranges.
In 1968, a geological survey revealed that the Senkaku/Diaoyu group might have valuable oil and natural gas deposits. Japan, China and Taiwan all sat up like meerkats. When the US turned over the Ryukyu islands to Japan in 1972, it granted Japan administrative control over Senkaku/Diaoyu – but not sovereignty. As McCormack has written, the arrangement amounted to “implicit admission that the islands might be subject to competing claims”. Chiang Kai-shek reportedly rued his failure to take up Roosevelt’s offer.
Japan normalised relations with China in 1972. Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and Premier Zhou Enlai agreed to leave the Senkaku/Diaoyu problem in the too-hard basket for the time being. Over the years, the odd inflamed Chinese or Japanese nationalist sailed from Hong Kong, Taiwan or ports in Okinawa to try and plant a flag, but neither government wanted trouble.
Then, in 2010, with neo-nationalism on the rise, Japanese maritime authorities arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain close to the islands. Tokyo declared for the first time that there was “no room for doubt” that they belonged to Japan. China responded furiously. Anti-Japanese riots broke out in a number of Chinese cities, and China reportedly halted rare-earth shipments to Japan. The Japanese backed down, releasing the fisherman. But instead of proceeding to bilateral negotiations, Japan sought (and received) assurance from the US that the islands were covered by the US–Japan Security Treaty.
When Tokyo’s right-wing governor, Ishihara Shintaro, announced later that year that his city would buy three of the islets to secure them against claims from China, he further incited Chinese anger. Then, on 7 July 2012, the 75th anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China, the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, declared Japan would nationalise the islands – and defend them militarily, calling them “intrinsic Japanese territory”. Campaigning for the National Diet at the end of 2012, Noda’s successor, Shinzo Abe, asserted: “What is called for in the Senkaku vicinity is not negotiation but physical force incapable of being misunderstood.” His militaristic rhetoric alarmed the US: the then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urged Japan to negotiate directly with China, but to no avail. When Abe visited the US in February 2013, Washington pointedly denied him both a state dinner and a joint press conference. (Abbott, by contrast, has invited Abe to address the Australian parliament.)
By 2013, Beijing had had enough. Government newspaper People’s Daily characterised the islets as a “core interest” – and provocatively suggested that it was time to revisit the status of Okinawa. This tapped into Japanese anxiety about the archipelago’s small but reportedly growing movement for independence, which is fed by resentment at US bases there. One issue is that since 1972 American military personnel have committed some 6000 crimes, a number of them violent, including the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl in 1995.
In July 2013, Abe made a highly publicised visit to Okinawa.
That same month, an official Chinese news outlet published an article titled ‘Revealing the Six Wars China Must Fight in the Coming 50 Years’. They would recover, in successive five-year blocks, Taiwan, the islands of the South China Sea, ‘South Tibet’ (India’s Arunachal Pradesh), Senkaku/Diaoyu and Ryukyu, (‘Outer’) Mongolia and, finally, historic Chinese territories now under Russian control. The article fits a trend towards muscular rhetoric. The historian Geoff Wade has pointed to a 2013 book titled China Is Not Afraid: New threats to national security and our strategic responses and a film, Jiaoliang Wusheng (‘Silent Contest’), that claims the US wants to bring China under its control through political, cultural and other forms of subversion.
On 23 November, Beijing announced its ADIZ. The US Department of State’s response asserted that “freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of sea and airspace are essential to prosperity, stability and security in the Pacific”. Yet, as the Singaporean academic and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani wrote in the New York Times, if American leaders wanted China to act as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system, they should have been leading by example, committing to “simple and clear multilateral rules”. The US, he noted, remained the only major country that had yet to ratify the United Nations’ Law of the Sea Treaty. (Australia signed on in 1994.)
Two weeks after China’s announcement, South Korea declared it would expand its ADIZ over airspace also claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo. Through a spokesperson, Foreign Minister Bishop told me that South Korea had consulted with the Australian government, as it had with Japan, China and the US, in advance of its announcement – hence the relatively mild international reaction.
South Korea, like Japan, like Australia, is an ally of the US. Its political system has little in common with that of China, North Korea’s own (if sorely tested) “best friend” in Asia. Yet the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, has held two friendly meetings with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to promote what she calls a “strategic cooperative partnership” with China. She has thus far refused to meet with Abe, who continues to refuse to express contrition for or even acknowledge Japanese war crimes in World War Two.
At the end of December, Abe visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honours convicted war criminals alongside Japan’s other war dead, including those responsible for the savage treatment of Australians in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Its on-site museum presents an extreme right-wing narrative that the seasoned American correspondent James Fallows calls “as slanted as anything I’ve seen in a totalitarian country”. The museum’s ultra-nationalist narrative of war blames US economic and military encirclement for Japan’s entry into World War Two and credits Japan for “liberating” Asia and bringing stability and development to Manchuria and Nanjing – two places where Japanese war crimes, including Nazi-style medical experimentation, rank among the worst of the war’s brutalities. Our “best friend in Asia” has not, in short, always been Asia’s best friend.
The visit sparked protests across the region. Bishop’s spokesperson informed me that the Australian government had raised the question of the visit to the shrine with the Japanese embassy. Shortly after, Abe stated his determination to change the Japanese constitution to allow Japan a full-fledged military.
Increasing bellicosity on the parts of both China and Japan demands a careful, even-handed response. This should be based on understanding each country’s complex domestic political landscape and, just as important, the history of the issue, including that of America’s involvement. We need informed discussion and debate.
Writing in the Australian, Griffith University’s Ross Fitzgerald slammed criticism of this government’s pro-Japanese posturing as pro-Chinese “appeasement”. The article, along with a similar fusillade by Gerard Henderson, was published on 4 January.
It seems neither commentator noticed that days earlier, Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper had published revelations that Chinese military officers had in fact informed Japanese government officials of its ADIZ expansion more than three years earlier, at a meeting in May 2010 in Beijing. Noting that China’s new ADIZ covered Senkaku/Diaoyu and overlapped with Japan’s ADIZ, the Chinese suggested that the two countries work out rules to prevent accidental clashes. According to minutes of the meeting acquired by Mainichi Shimbun, the Japanese Defense Ministry official told the Chinese that Japan would not comment before China made a public announcement. China’s ADIZ declaration, in other words, did not take Japan by surprise.
Mainichi Shimbun also reported that one year before that meeting, in 2009, China submitted a tentative application to the UN to extend China’s continental shelf; it made a formal (pending) application in 2012.
Subsequent events – including Abe’s call on 20 January for a summit meeting and “frank discussion” with South Korea and China to diffuse the crisis – need to be evaluated in this context. Granted, this may prove inconvenient to the Australian equivalent of what the American political science scholar Peter Hays Gries calls the “conservative China bashers” of Capitol Hill, whose rhetoric fosters “a Manichean vision” of international relations. It’s not the “panda huggers” who live in a black-and-white world.
Hugh White, the strategic defence analyst, has urged Australians to “think deeply about where our real interests and values lie – not the vapid political slogans but the concrete foundations of an international environment that will support Australia’s security and prosperity in the very different Asia of the Asian Century”. The author of The China Choice doesn’t in fact advocate making a simple choice: “Choosing sides in any way,” he writes, “is not the answer.”
Even the conservative commentator Tom Switzer, the editor of Spectator Australia and Sydney University’s American Review, has written that the US president Barack Obama’s response to the crisis, including flying bombers over the disputed islands, risks pushing “an insecure China into an anti-foreign posture” and thus creating a situation where “accidents or miscalculations” could spark a conflict. He notes that this view is shared by Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating and Henry Kissinger alike.
In January, Sino-Japanese relations took a surreal twist when the two countries’ respective ambassadors to the United Kingdom exchanged Harry Potter–inspired insults. It may indeed take a wizard to sort this one out. Let’s hope our government is looking for one. If the government is to act in the national interest, it needs more alert, unaligned and fearless advice than it has been relying on to date.
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