Judicialize the island disputes!

As the exciting presidential race reaches the home stretch, I thought I might write about an issue of keen interest to all Americans — namely, the status of the small, uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea.  Okay, maybe it’s not the most important issue to Americans, but, at the moment, it is the dominant political story in China, who call the islands the “Diaoyu” and Japan, who call them “Senkaku.”

Last Friday, the state-controlled Chinese Daily bought a two page ad in the New York Times and Washington Post displaying a picturesque shot of the largest of the islands and a list of all of the main arguments for Chinese ownership of them.  Apparently the Chinese government would like the inform the American people of their grievances.  Why?  Well, the island issue might seem small, but it brings along with it interesting questions about the U.S. future role in the region and the viability of international conflict resolution mechanisms.

The competing claims between the two countries boil down to somewhat obscure historical arguments and counterarguments.  Essentially, the Chinese (and Taiwanese — who recently had a water cannon battle with Japan over the issue) claim that historical records show a long association between the islands and the mainland.  Meanwhile, Japanese government officials argue that the islands were explored and incorporated by Japan in 1895 with no clear protest then, or after, by Chinese officials.  The Japanese argue that it was not until oil and gas resources were discovered in the surrounding waters in the early seventies that Chinese officials discovered a claim to the islands.

Whether we like it or not, the United States is caught up in the issue as well.  Since the United States occupied Japan after the Second World War, it largely determined what Japanese territories were to be returned to other countries and what territories belonged to Japan (something the Chinese government and press now like to call “backroom deals.”)  Not surprisingly, Mao’s China was not consulted in these decisions and the disputed islands were retained under Japanese administration.

Nowadays, despite the official declarations of neutrality on the issue, the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Security and Cooperation suggests an obligation by United States to stand by Japan in defending any territories under its administrative control.  Does that mean that the US will somehow get sucked into an armed conflict?   No, not likely. However, if Japanese leaders perceive even tacit US backing, it will encourage continued Japanese intransigence on the issue.

The United States can be constructively involved by urging both sides to seek international arbitration of the issue.  Japan has actually already sought in recent months to bring another dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) involving islands controlled by South Korea.   If the Japanese feel that in the South Korea case that their cause is just and strong enough to pursue through international legal mechanisms, then U.S. officials might be successful in urging a similar path in pursuing their case against China.  At the same time, if the Chinese government finds it important enough to curry international sympathy and favor on the issue that they put out ads in American newspaper, perhaps they might be persuaded of the symbolic importance that successful international arbitration would provide.

The problem, unfortunately, is that U.S. has always had a troubled relationship with international institutions like the ICJ and lesser-known, but older, Permanent Court of Arbitration.  These courts have generally found against the United States and the US has mostly reacted by ignoring the rulings. It is hard for U.S. officials to promote conflict resolution mechanisms they have expressed little respect for in the past.

Nevertheless, American officials need to press for some sort of international mediation or arbitration of the dispute.  The alternatives are likely to increase tensions in the Pacific for years to come.  While a new age of peaceful international jurisprudence is not likely to tame realpolitik and nationalism in the region anytime soon, it will be a sad signal for future Pacific cooperation if international institutions or mediation fail to play a role in resolving the matter.

Posted on October 3, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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