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Japanese Governor Stokes Tension With China Over Disputed Islands

As the diplomatic imbroglio between China and the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea continues, Beijing is facing another territorial clash over another set of islands, this time with Japan. The group of islands, located in the East China Sea, are held by a private Japanese owner. The Japanese government has rented them since 2002, but in a move that is sure to provoke an angry response from China, the governor of Tokyo has announced plans to buy the islands.

According to the Financial Times, the governor, Shintaro Ishihara, challenged the longstanding rental agreement while visiting the U.S. yesterday:

Mr Ishihara, a conservative who has long been fiercely critical of China, suggested leaving the islands in private ownership could weaken Japan’s claim to them, waving aside worries that attempting to develop them would be diplomatically unwise.

“The purchase of these islands will be Japanese buying Japanese land in order to protect it. What would other countries have to complain about?” Mr Ishihara said.

The two countries cannot even agree on what to call the islands; in China they are referred to as Diaoyus but in Japan they are known as Senkaku. And the dispute goes far beyond the appropriate appellation; the FT also points out that: “A clash between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coastguard in the area in 2010 sparked the worst tension between Beijing and Tokyo in years, all but halting official contact and disrupting economic exchanges for months.”

The owner of the islands has yet to decide whether he will in fact sell them. Even if he does there are considerable legal and political roadblocks which must be cleared, including the ability of Japan’s central government to block the sale. Ultimately, however, whether the sale goes ahead or not, this dispute—like that between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea—illustrates Beijing’s geopolitical limitations.

Wariness of China is prevalent throughout Asia, and while this presents the U.S. with opportunities (witness the Obama administration’s recent “pivot” to the region), Washington must also be aware of the pitfalls of becoming too deeply entangled in neighborly disputes.

The temperature in Asia seems to be rising.

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  • Luke Lea

    An anonymous American teacher who teaches in China had this to say about his students:

    “While Chinese rarely express an open desire for imperialist expansion, an ideological sense of the inevitability of such expansion is a hidden part of national political consciousness. Rather than being self-admitted expansionists, Chinese expansion is instead expressed by characterizing foreign nations as “part of China” which must one day be reconquered and brought into the fold of the motherland to redress the historic injustices of foreign domination by restoring territorial integrity. The fact that these Asian nations are not part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as they are supposed to be, is yet further ammunition for a sense of national grievance and humiliation.

    Press university students on the matter and one will quite easily be told that not only Taiwan and Tibet, but Mongolia, the Koreas, much or all of South-East Asia, Japan and most of the Philippines are somehow “part of China.” The argument relies on obscure racial and cultural connections that somehow make these independent nations part of a larger Han empire that – while never having existed in the past as a national entity and, even on a cultural level, has no basis in linguistic and genetic links – must one day be re-established for Chinese dignity and territorial integrity.

    So, while Chinese will say that China is a “peaceful country” which does not have imperialist aims, such peace and nonaggression is contingent upon the restoration of the territorial integrity of an imagined (Han) Chinese empire that would consume a significant amount of the nations surrounding the PRC.

    I learned of this while discussing Chinese history with some students, who, after vigorously extolling the truth of what they were taught, then insisted they were “not nationalists,” since such desire for “reintegration” is a return to an (imagined) historic norm rather than a national expansion into new territory.”

    Read the whole thing here:

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