Professor Cohen Comments on the tension at the Diaoyu IslandsAug 23rd, 2012 | By USAsialawNYU | Category: Jerome A. Cohen's Blog Printable format
Professor Jerome Cohen was recently asked to comment on the recent tensions surrounding the Diaoyu ( Senkaku) Islands, following Chinese citizens’ landing on the disputed islands in support of China’s possession of the territory. Specifically, he was asked why China would allow its nationals (non-government actors) to take such an action and whether the situation might have any bearing on China’s position in regard to other disputed territories, such as the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. His response is posted below.
The PRC government must be cautious in how it handles these problems and is necessarily slow to involve PRC officials. The use of non-officials keeps the issue alive without implicating the government directly. The more interesting question is not why the PRC allows non-officials to act but why the Japanese government allowed them to land on an island it controls. It obviously decided that to prevent them from landing would heat matters up more than allowing them to land would and Japan wants to minimize the inevitable friction the interlopers cause.
The country in control of a disputed island always has a great advantage, putting the burden on nationals of the country that would like to be in control and their government (in this case the PRC) to decide how to keep the issue alive and demonstrate the existence of a “dispute.” The country in control always says there is no “dispute” since the island plainly belongs to it. This is Japan’s position regarding these islands. Please note that this is China’s position regarding the islands in the South China Sea that it (the PRC) and Taiwan control. China, for example, says that it wants to resolve SCS issues bilaterally with each of the other claimants, yet it refuses to talk with Vietnam about ownership of the Xisha (Paracel) islands, which Vietnam protests. So Vietnam has with respect to the Paracels the same problem China has with respect to the Senkaku/Diaoyu.
Should Vietnam allow some of its nationals to try to land on the Paracels the way China allows some of its nationals to land on the Senkaku/Diaoyu? That would escalate the dispute further but demonstrate the similarities between the two situations. At some point China will have to reconcile its positions in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Japan has the same problem with Korea. Japan does not control Tokdo/Takeshima but Korea does, so Japan is the party on the outs and is frustrated. What is needed is agreement among the various players to adopt consistent rules and tactics and resort to an agreed process for fairly resolving these territorial disputes. If they cannot do that, they will have to come up with imaginative ways of shelving territorial claims and sharing resources. Either path involves statesmanship and enlightened policies of a high order. None of the players involved has shown signs of adopting such a wise course. They are all slaves to nationalism and domestic politics, so the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous, with no solutions in sight.
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