Media Mix, Aug. 19, 2012

The Senkakus

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about Japan’s territorial disputes with two of its neighbors, South Korea and China. Both conflicts are in flux as I write this and much of what I said in the article already feels dated even if nothing substantial has changed. Given the economic interdependence among the three countries, no one expects these eruptions of patriotic will to escalate into actual sanctions or military action, but they definitely bring out the worst in everyone involved and simply delay whatever constructive engagement might bring progress to eastern Asia. In the context of these island disputes, progress is only measured parochially: I’ll get mine and won’t give an inch. Such a rationale is China’s normal operating procedure, but Japan and South Korea should have, by now, gotten over their mutual enmity. Takeshima/Dokdo may be prime fishing grounds but the strategic importance of those rocks hardly seems worth the emotional capital that both governments are spending on it. Japan’s gambit of taking the matter to the International Court of Justice could be a bluff (Japan knows SK will never agree to a trial there), but in any case Korea’s reason for rejecting the proposal–that it already has sovereignty over the islands and therefore there is nothing to argue–is exactly the same reasoning Japan falls back on in its dispute with China/Taiwan since Japan effectively controls the Senkakus the way Korea controls Dokdo. And as Narahiko Toyoshita has pointed out, in the case of the Senkakus Japan has the U.S. to back it up, even if the U.S. has pointedly said it is not involved in the matter and doesn’t want to be. The American military retains nominal control over two of the islands–technically no one is allowed to land on them without permission from the U.S. Navy–even if it has barely exercised that control since it handed Okinawa back to Japan in 1972. (On a side note, this morning’s Tokyo Shimbun has an article that says in 1952 Japan offered the U.S. the use of Takeshima for training.) Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has led the movement to buy the other three islands from its owners in order to solidify Japan’s claim on them, though Toyoshita says his real purpose is to provoke China as a means of providing Japan’s self-defense forces with a real reason for existing. In that regard, Ishihara may think that the U.S. will eventually publicly support Japan’s claim. (Toyoshita also says that Ishihara’s strategy is to justify Japanese development of its own nuclear arsenal) This seems totally hypothetical, but it’s interesting, and brings up another, not completely unrelated issue.

According to the Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the U.S., if the latter does not use the land it has commandeered for some time, the former can ask the U.S. to leave and reclaim it. From what Toyoshita says, the U.S., which initially retained control of the two Senkakus for artillery practice, hasn’t used them since 1978, so legally Japan could ask the U.S. military to leave. Why hasn’t Ishihara done that if he’s so keen on fortifying Japan’s claims? Is it because China knows that the U.S. is there and thus may be more hesitant to press its own claim? If so, that’s real brinksmanship. But in that sense Ishihara is also hiding behind the U.S. For all his anti-foreign interference bluster, he doesn’t seem to want to really stand up to the U.S. when he can. After all, when he first ran for governor of Tokyo, he promised to take Yokota air base back from the U.S. and make it over into an international air hub for Western Tokyo. And from what I understand he could do that, since the U.S. military doesn’t use it that much any more. Taking over Yokota would not only give Tokyo another airport, it would free up the air space over half a dozen prefectures which now are off limits to commercial planes because of exclusive rights claimed by the U.S. military in line with its usage of Yokota. Actually, in terms of something that can benefit Japanese citizens right now, reclaiming Yokota is a bigger issue than the Senkaku or Takeshima disputes, but Ishihara doesn’t really want to take on the U.S.

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