Rising China, Japan, and U.S. Historical Responsibility

“A Strong Military”–to Assert Island Claims

“To realize the great revival of the Chinese nation,” President Xi Jinping has told the people of the People’s Republic, “we must preserve the bond between a rich country and a strong military, and strive to build a consolidated national defense and a strong military.”

Some might find it slightly ironic that Xi Jinping’s slogan: “rich country and a strong military” is precisely the same slogan–fukoku-kyohei in Japanese–popularized by the Meiji oligarchs in Japan from 1868. These were the ex-samurai who humiliated China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and proceeded to colonize Taiwan, Korea, south Sakhalin, etc. using their “strong military” to build the “rich country” that Japan became and remains.

But there’s no question that China too is an ascendant military power. The Pentagon depicts China’s rise as a threat to “regional security” (a euphemism for the status quo and what Washington considers U.S. “national interests” in the Pacific). The Chinese respond that their military buildup is purely defensive and part of an overall process of modernization. They might add that, whereas the U.S. goes to war routinely, far from its borders, China has gone to war rarely since the Korean War of 1950-53 and only in brief border wars with India, the USSR and Vietnam.

And they might add that while Washington thinks its “security” interests require the conquest and occupation of countries worlds away from itself, and such surveillance as current technology allows of every soul on earth, the PRC conceptualizes its security interests much more modestly.

On the other hand, the PRC of 2014 is plainly not that of the Mao era, committed to socialism, internationalism, and non-interference in other countries’ affairs. Once an inspiration to anti-capitalist revolutionaries everywhere, China has experienced the thorough restoration of capitalism in the last several decades. Its foreign policy is surely motivated to some extent by the profit motive. There are, for example, foreign policy ramifications of having $40 billion invested in Africa, mostly in mineral products vital to China’s astonishingly rapid capitalist growth. Its foreign policy is inevitably driven, just as much as the foreign policy of the U.S., by the need for corporate profit.

There are, for example, foreign policy ramifications of having $40 billion invested in Africa, mostly in mineral products vital to China’s astonishingly rapid capitalist growth. Or from being Iran’s number one trading partner and petroleum consumer, even as the U.S. and Israel threaten to attack Iran. PRC naval vessels now frequent the Gulf of Aden and take action against Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa, looking out for Chinese “national interests.” Yes, the PRC may become more apt to use military force as its power grows, to further the ends of its elite–its 1%–especially in its own backyard. No one familiar with the history of the U.S. in the Caribbean should find this at all surprising.

Beijing expresses concern about the U.S. “pivot to Asia” policy announced in 2010, which involves a “rebalancing” of military forces from the Middle East and Central Asia (as the Afghan War theoretically winds down) to East Asia. The principal reason for this is apparently to “contain” China–more than it’s already “contained” by a necklace of U.S. bases from Japan to Guam to Afghanistan–and discourage any efforts by Beijing to solve territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas by military force.

This “containment” is not Cold War-style containment. It’s not about checking an ideological trend or antagonistic system. (When the PRC provides half of U.S. home textile imports, produced by Chinese workers employed by foreign capitalists, how can one posit an ideological divide?) It’s all about budding inter-capitalist competition, not entirely incomparable to the competition between the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific before World War II.

It’s about the U.S. protecting its own hegemonic position in East Asia established since 1945, which is now challenged by a China seeking to reestablish its own historical regional hegemony following many decades of hostile encirclement. Beijing for its part denies any aggressive intentions, and declares its commitment to “harmony” in the world. It consistently invokes that ancient Confucian value. (Recall how the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies in 2008 featured no Marxist-Leninist manifestations but centered on the 和 “harmony”–Chinese he, Japanese wa–concept.)

Still, the near-collision in early December of U.S. and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea underscores the real possibility of military confrontation. It also suggests that, as the propaganda on all sides heats up, we should all become familiar with the territorial disputes and Chinese claims.

The Historical Context

Washington depicts Chinese claims to a host of uninhabited islands, some of which are also claimed by Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as an excuse for military expansion and pressure on neighboring countries (mostly close U.S. allies). One seldom finds in the U.S. press any sympathetic discussion of these claims.

But China, at least in some instances, surely has a case based on traditional and logical arguments for sovereignty. It stresses history more than narrow legality. It points to the depictions of isles on sometimes centuries-old Chinese maps, and to the fact that Chinese visited, named, and described them. It sometimes cites evidence that Chinese claims have been historically respected by neighboring nations.

The most explosive dispute is that between China (and Taiwan) and Japan over small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea which the Chinese call Diaoyu and the Japanese the Senkaku Islands.

In pressing its claims, Beijing for the most part alludes to times when the current system of “international law” (growing out of such events as the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648 in Europe) didn’t exist–or at least before the humiliating western encroachments beginning with the Opium War of 1839-42 brought European concepts of international law to the region.

The British could argue that the Opium War, which resulted in the British acquisition of Hong Kong, the expansion of western opium trafficking in China–necessary to balance the trade deficit–and (from 1854) control of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, was entirely legal. In the U.S., President Martin Van Buren applauded the Opium War, while former president John Quincy Adams embraced it as “a righteous cause.” It was, in Adams’ opinion, a proper reaction to “the arrogant and insupportable pretension of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind…upon the insulting and degrading forms of lord and vassal.”)

Indeed, the system of international relations prevailing in East Asia from around the second century BCE to the nineteenth century had been the Sinocentric tribute system, according to which the countries surrounding China and wishing to trade with it formally declared their recognition of China’s suzerainty. It was a lord-vassal relationship. But this was not necessarily seen by the foreign countries’ leaders as a humiliating relationship–as “arrogant and insupportable.” (What did John Quincy Adams know, for example, about the feelings of the Korean court about the tributary relationship?)

China seemed indeed to be “the central country” with a more advanced culture, and the benefits of the tributary relationship could be considerable. Envoys travelling to the Chinese court, kowtowing to the emperor, conveying tribute goods invariably departed with a greater quantity of Chinese gifts plus the right of their nationals to trade in the world’s most populous and at times most prosperous nation.

There might also be advantages to calling upon the elder-brother nation for protection; Korean kings sometimes called upon Chinese help to repel invasions or suppress peasant uprisings. As western nations used gunboat diplomacy to try to force Korea to open its doors in the 1860s, the Koreans resisted their overtures, arguing that China, the overlord nation, by custom handled their foreign affairs.

The Korean court was alarmed by events in next-door Japan in the 1850s and 60s, just as it was alarmed by events in China from the Opium War. It appeared that aggressive westerners were knocking down doors everywhere, and that the Japanese were now working with them. Thus the Koreans cautiously ignored Japanese diplomatic initiatives.

This Korean silence infuriated the new Japanese leadership. In 1873 it considered invading Korea, to force the Korean court to recognize the Meiji regime and to sign precisely the sort of unequal treaty with Japan that Japan had been forced to sign with western powers. (A clear case of the abused becoming the abuser.) Plans to attack were only aborted due to concern about western reactions to such a move. The decision not to invade was a practical, not moral, decision. It was really a matter of timing.

The general opinion within the Japanese elite (as expressed by Nitobe Inazo, a Quaker convert, prominent international intellectual and English-language apologist for Japanese culture, married to a white Baltimore woman in 1909) was that Koreans were “primitive,” belonging “to a stone age.” (See his Thoughts and Essays, Tokyo, 1909, p. 214-16). That even such a “progressive” figure would baldly express such ethnic bigotry towards Koreans (whom, if it makes any difference, are actually a pretty close DNA match to Japanese) suggests that the actions of the Japanese elite and state towards Korea were based on anything but mutual respect.

But Japan did soon force the “hermit kingdom” of Korea—which the Japanese oligarch Yamagata Aritomo sometimes described as “a dagger pointed to the heart of Japan” (reasoning apparently that should it fall under Russian control it could be used as a beachhead for an attack on Japan)–to sign an unequal treaty in 1876. This opened the country to a permanent Japanese legation and vastly expanded trade. By this, treaty Korea renounced its longstanding status as a Chinese tributary state.

The presence of Japanese troops in the country produced a large-scale uprising by Korean soldiers in 1882. In 1884 there was a bloody, Japanese-inspired coup attempt, after which both Chinese and Japanese forces intervened in Korea. Liberation was not in store; Korea soon became the vortex of Sino-Japanese contention, then Russo-Japanese imperialist competition, and later a key flashpoint in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War.

For centuries, the Japanese had declined inclusion in the China-centered tribute system. Official missions were sent to China from the early seventh through early ninth centuries, and again from the early fifteenth through the mid-sixteenth. But the Japanese ruling class was never comfortable with the notion that the Japanese emperor–the descendent of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu–was inferior to the Chinese Son of Heaven, or needed to have his credentials verified by an outsider.

One can surely sympathize with the proto-nationalism behind Japan’s historical aloofness. But the flipside has sometimes been an assertion of Japan’s right to establish a Japan-centered sphere, through military force. The results have not necessarily been positive.

The Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa): Not Always Part of Japan

To understand the deep background of the Sino-Japanese islands dispute, we should begin with Okinawa. We think today of Okinawa and the adjoining islands (the Ryukyus) as an integral part of Japan. But this was not always the case.

From its unification under the Sho dynasty in the fifteenth century the Ryukyu Kingdom was a Chinese tributary state. Chinese culture is still more apparent in those islands than on the main islands of Japan. The Ryukyuan and Japanese languages, while related (like German and Norwegian), aren’t mutually intelligible. They separated over two thousand years ago. The cultures of Japan and the Ryukyus were and still are quite different. A 2005 poll conducted by a professor at the University of the Ryukyus showed that over 40% of Okinawa people do not consider themselves “Japanese” and would in fact like independence from Japan.

There is in fact a sad history between these islands and the Land of the Rising Sun. In the 1590s the Japanese hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having reunified a nation divided into warring domains for over a century, demanded that countries around Japan recognize him as their overlord and pay tribute to Japan. An egomaniac convinced that he as the leader of a million samurai could conquer Korea, China, even Persia, this warlord demanded that the nearby Ryukyu kingdom become a Japanese tributary. A terrified king Sho Nei (r. 1587-1620) made a payment (to help with the invasion of Korea), but only delivered part of what he’d promised.

Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592 as the first step in his global conquest scheme. He died six years later with the war a bloody stalemate. (The Ming Chinese had intervened massively to help repel the Japanese.) The new shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu wisely withdrew Japanese troops from Korea, arranged POW exchanges, and established a solid diplomatic and trade relationship with Korea. He left the Ryukyus alone.

But in 1609 the daimyo (baron) of the Japanese domain of Satsuma, at the tip of the island of Kyushu, dispatched a force of 3000 warriors to the Ryukyus–supposedly to punish its king for his earlier failure to pay adequate tribute to the late Hideyoshi, and for failure to express proper appreciation for the recent repatriation of Ryukyuan sailors shipwrecked off the Honshu coast. It was a plain power-bid and effort to curry favor with the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. (Satsuma had opposed the Tokugawa on the battlefield in 1600 but had graciously been allowed to retain a portion of its vast territory after its defeat.) The subordination of the Ryukyus was a gift from Satsuma to the shogunate, and a kind of loyalty oath.

After suppressing strong resistance, the Satsuma samurai first seized control of the Amami Islands at the north end of the Ryukyus, which thus became “Japanese” territory. (These now have a population of about 120,000 on eight islands administered as part of Kagoshima Prefecture.) Satsuma forces then invaded Okinawa, capturing King Sho Nei, bringing him to Edo (today’s Tokyo) where he was forced to declare submission to Ieyasu in August 1610. He was also obliged to pledge fealty to the daimyo of Satsuma domain that December. From this point the Ryukyus were regarded by China, Japan, and the Satsuma domain as a tributary state, with neither China nor Japan recognizing the other’s claim.

(For Satsuma there were numerous advantages of the arrangement. The domain profited from the lucrative tribute-trade with the Ryukyus, in goods such as sugar, tobacco, and Chinese silk. Japanese musical culture was forever enriched by the introduction of the banjo-like shamisen, originally of Chinese origin, through the Ryukyus via Satsuma.)

Japan’s relations with the outside world changed dramatically in the 1630s. Due in part to concern about the spread of Christianity in Japan, in part to concern about European encroachment, the shogunate expelled nearly all foreigners from the country (an exception made for the Dutch, who swore they had no intention of promoting any sort of religion). It also forbade Japanese from leaving the country.

Exceptions were made for traders visiting Korea, where Japan had a permanent trading station near what is now Busan, and the Ryukyus. The Ryukyu Kingdom was still considered a foreign country, its envoys to Japan treated much the same way as those from Korea (which never accepted a tributary status in relation to Japan). But Satsuma ships regularly visited Okinawa, docking on the side of island opposite to that frequented by the boats from China, collecting tribute and engaging in trade.

The great paradox here is that an era of foreign aggression–including the invasions of Korea and the Ryukyus between 1592 and 1609–and incessant civil war was followed by over two centuries of peace. During the era of the Tokugawa shoguns (1603-1868) Japan was involved in no foreign wars and, despite incessant local peasant rebellions, experienced no nationwide upheavals. It was a period of extraordinary stability and economic (including specifically capitalistic) growth achieved in relative isolation from the world system created by European and North American capital.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 changed everything. Japan had been “opened” by U.S. gunboat diplomacy in 1854, agreed to allow foreigners to visit and live in “treaty ports” in 1859, and experienced internal upheaval. The leaders of “new Japan” felt it was a mark of a “civilized” nation to not only maintain national independence but to colonize less advanced peoples, just like the Spanish had done in the Philippines, the Dutch in Java, the English in India, the French in Vietnam, the U.S. expanding into Mexican territory, etc. After all, the most up-to-date western “science” was telling the Japanese leaders that there were more or less advanced “races” and it was natural for the superior to dominate the inferior. Social Darwinism validated the oligarchs’ expansionist ambitions.

But only in the 1870s did Japan, under its new, western-oriented regime, formally annex the Ryukyu Kingdom. It did so without consulting with the Ryukyuan people, to say nothing of China. It did so in two phases, first pronouncing the islands a barony (han) in 1871, governed by the king, Sho Tai, who would now be accountable to Tokyo. In 1879 the former kingdom was declared a prefecture of Japan–the current Okinawa Prefecture.

In that year Sho Tai–last in a line of kings dating back to 1429–was forced to abdicate, relocate to Tokyo, accept Japanese courtly rank, and learn how to speak the appropriate sort of Japanese. He invested in an Okinawa copper mining operation, but it wasn’t very successful. Okubo Toshimichi, one of the three most crucial figures in the early Meiji leadership, suggested in 1875 that the newly-dubbed marquis be made hereditary governor of Okinawa, to pacify local anti-Japanese sentiment. But the leadership did not agree on the question. Sho Tai only got back to Okinawa once, to visit ancestral graves, before this death at age 58 in 1879. A victim, arguably, of early Japanese imperialism.

In the interim, in December 1871, some Ryukyuan fishermen were shipwrecked on the southeastern coast of Taiwan. Fifty-four of these were massacred by people of the Paiwan tribe native to that region. The incident provided an opportunity for Tokyo to press its claim of sovereignty over the Ryukyus. Japanese Foreign Minister Soejima Taneomi visited Beijing and obtained an unprecedented meeting with the Chinese emperor. In that meeting he argued that since the Ryukyus had just been declared a Japanese han, all Ryukyuans were Japanese subjects and that China, as sovereign over Taiwan, bore responsibility to punish those culpable in this incident. (He was surely aware that the Chinese central government did not in fact control the region where the event had occurred.)

Emperor Tongzhi replied (quite understandably) that since Taiwan was part of China and the Ryukyu Kingdom in fact a Chinese tributary state–neither of them part of Japan–this was a purely internal matter for China. He might have added that, having so abruptly emerged from a long period of national isolation and passivity, Japan was suddenly asserting unreasonable territorial claims.

Tokyo’s response was to dispatch in May 1874 a naval force of 3,600 to attack the Paiwan community on the southeastern Taiwan coast. The attackers killed about 30 people and demanded and received an indemnity from China of 500,000 taels. Only after this bruising experience did Qing China implicitly, grudgingly acknowledge that the Ryukyus were part of Japan. Okinawa was Japan’s first colony.

(One could argue that the island of Hokkaido could be designated such, since that large northern island, a homeland of the Ainu people, was flooded by homesteading settlers and brought under Tokyo’s control in the 1870s. But the colonization had begun under the old regime; in 1799 the Tokugawa shogunate had asserted direct control over the island, and ordered the Ainu to learn Japanese. By 1850 their numbers had fallen to less than a third of the Hokkaido population, by 1880, under 10%.)

In obtaining control over the Ryukyus, the Japanese government expanded the nation from one spanning the 45th to 30th latitudes to one extending south as far as the 24th parallel. (The populated island of Iriomote lies further south than the city of Taipei on Taiwan.) From this point, Japan would share the East China Sea with China.

Towards the end of the conflict in the Pacific, in World War II, between April and June of 1945, U.S. forces attacked Okinawa. Japanese officials ordered the population (some 300,000 people) to resist to the death, on behalf of the Emperor. Many did; over 100,000 Ryukyuans were sacrificed. 90% of the island’s buildings were destroyed, priceless historical artifacts and documents lost. There’s enduring bitterness in the Ryukyus not only about the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation but towards Tokyo as well. As one prefectural official told the Guardian in 2011: “The Japanese army not only starved the Okinawans but used them as human shields. That dark history is still present today–and Japan and the US should study it before they decide what to do with next.”

The Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands

To the south of the Ryukyu Kingdom was the collection of five isles that the Chinese named Diaoyutai. Currently uninhabited, they are located about 170 kilometers northeast of Taiwan and over 400 kilometers southeast of Okinawa. They were not traditionally regarded by Ryukyuan kings as part of their domain, and there seems to be no evidence that anyone from the Japanese main islands even visited them before the late nineteenth century.

Chinese had visited them, however, from at least 1372 when Ming China started sending envoys to the Ryukyus. They were used as a navigation point by the diplomatic missions from at least 1403. They appear, some identified by name, on Chinese maps produced over the last six centuries. A substantial travel diary, by a Chinese envoy to the Ryukyu Kingdom, dated 1534, depicts the islands as the “border that separates Chinese and foreign lands.” (Again, there is no evidence for Japanese awareness of the islands at this time. They lay far to the south of Japan, with the still-independent Ryukyu Kingdom in between.) The Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga, who began the process of reunifying Japan, was born in this year.

In other words, ambassadors of a well-organized, centralized, bureaucratic state–Ming China–were matter-of-factly referring to the islands as the “border” at a time when Japan lacked any kind of effective central administration that could even delimitate Japan’s own borders. Europeans (first arriving in Japan in 1543) saw Japan not as a single country, but as a collection of warring kingdoms whose leaders were giving little attention even to the Ryukyus–to say nothing of remoter islands to the south.

But a sixteenth century Chinese gazetteer shows that Chinese were paying keen attention. It mentions that the main island of Diaoyu “accommodates ten or more” junks in its harbors, which suggests at least occasional Chinese visitation. Another report, by an envoy to the Ryukyus in 1561, states that the islands are landmarks one passes on the final stage of the voyage from Fuzhou (in Fujian province) to Okinawa. Aren’t such sources alone sufficient to establish an historical claim?

It is sometimes suggested that the Daioyu islands were part of Taiwan (and thus a part of China) from an early date. I would not argue otherwise, since they seem to have constituted fishing grounds for people from Taiwan and Fujian for centuries.

But one has to also note in fairness that the whole island of Taiwan was not firmly under Chinese control even as late as the nineteenth century. In the sixteenth century it was inhabited by numerous tribes governed, not by Han Chinese scholar-gentry, but by native chieftains. A Chinese sailor in a text dated 1603 refers to the indigenous peoples of the island as dong fan or “eastern savages.” When the Dutch colonizers arrived in 1626, they found little evidence of a Chinese administration. It was they who organized, over the next several decades, the migration of tens of thousands of Han Chinese peasants from Fujian province to farm on the island.

The Dutch were driven out of Taiwan by 1662, however, by forces commanded by Zheng Chenggong. Zheng was a pirate and Ming dynasty loyalist, and fought on its behalf (in Fujian, mostly) against the invading Manchus who established their dynasty in 1644. China and Japan can, I suppose, equally claim Zheng as their own, since he was born in the port of Hirado, in Kyushu, to a Chinese merchant and his Japanese wife. He was celebrated in Japanese popular culture (most notably in Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s puppet play Kokusenya Kassen of 1715), which emphasizes his Japanese side. He’s depicted as the embodiment of Japanese prowess and courage versus Chinese ineptitude and cowardice. He’s revered as a god in some temples in Fujian and Taiwan, including one in Tainan City, Taiwan, dedicated to him and his mother.

In Chikamatsu’s fanciful treatment Zheng (Kokusenya) defeats the Manchu barbarians. In the real world, the Manchus prevailed in the end and established the Qing dynasty on the mainland. (This was in fact a rather glorious Chinese dynasty, ruling to 1912). Zheng Chenggong was at least able to expel the Dutch colonizers, resist the Manchus and establish his own kingdom in southwestern Taiwan. This remained independent until his grandson submitted to Qing forces in 1682.

Only from this point can one really speak of Taiwan being “part of China” in an operational sense. And even then, the Chinese court paid little attention to the islands. Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722) called them “a ball of mud beyond the pale of civilization.” The Qing emperors claimed Taiwan, as they did Mongolia, Tibet and other regions, without necessarily administering them effectively.

Thus, as of the eighteenth century, the Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent monarchy, but obliged to pay tribute both China and Japan. The Tokugawa shoguns of Japan saw it as a foreign country. The Diaoyu islands in between Okinawa and Taiwan were claimed by China, while Taiwan itself was not under the full control of Beijing.

Japanese scholars at the time, during the period of national isolation, probably had limited understanding of the situation in Taiwan and adjoining islands. But a map drawn up in 1785 by Hayashi Shihei, a military scholar in the castle-town of Sendai and one of the most knowledgeable geographers of this time, shows the Diaoyu islands as Chinese, not Ryukyuan–and certainly not Japanese–on a map in his Illustrated Survey of the Three Countries. A Ryukyuan official also surveyed the islands in 1859 and his reports were subsequently used by the (Japanese) government of Okinawa Prefecture established in 1879.

Japan did not lay an immediate claim to the islands following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. But in 1885, Japanese interior minister Yamagata Aritomo endorsed a proposal by the Okinawan prefectural government that Japan stake a claim to the islands. (Yamagata also served as War Minister and Prime Minister and is considered the father of the modern Japanese army.) But the proposal was opposed by the foreign minister, Inoue Kaoru, on the grounds it would anger China, which had long since mapped and named them. Chinese newspapers had reported that Japanese, having taken control of the Ryukyus, might make a move on Daioyutai too. So, Inoue argued, the timing wasn’t right for annexation.

Still, serious surveys of the islands were undertaken by Okinawa Prefecture from this time. The Japanese claim only originated around this point–half a millennium after the islands appear on a Chinese map.

But why should all of this tedious history be of any concern to us?

No Dispute?

Because today, Tokyo insists that the Diaoyu islands are unquestionably Japanese. No need for discussion at all; this is a settled matter! Tokyo blandly declares that “there is no dispute” about sovereignty. How are the PRC and Taiwan governments which obviously do dispute Japanese claims, on rational grounds, supposed to react to that stance?

Meanwhile the U.S. government declares that, whatever the merits of the case, the islands are within the security zone that it is obliged to defend under the terms of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in effect since 1952. That treaty in effect trades U.S. assurances of Japanese “security” (from Russian or Chinese attack) and integration into the U.S.-led Cold War bloc for Tokyo’s routine deference to the U.S.’s global agenda.

(Just one example of that deference: Recall Prime Minister Koizumi’s automatic endorsement in 2003 of the U.S. attack on Iraq based on lies, and even the agreement to station Japanese “Self-Defense Forces” in southern Iraq, arguably in violation of the Japanese constitution. From January 2004 July 2006, in the first such deployment of its kind, 600 Japanese soldiers were stationed in Iraq, ostensibly on a purely “humanitarian” mission protected by Australian and Dutch troops. The mission was unpopular in Japan, along with the dispatch of a Japanese destroyer and supply ship to refuel U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean supporting the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007 the Diet forced then-Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo to end the latter mission. But as a rule the Japanese government over the last six decades has never publicly disagreed with the U.S. on any issue of consequence. It has been as abjectly obsequious to U.S. as Poland ever was to the old Soviet Union.)

While the Chinese (including the Taiwanese) make their case for the islands on the basis of history, Tokyo makes its case on the basis of “international law.” Specifically, it argues that in 1895, the Japanese cabinet (headed by Ito Hirobumi, soon to become Japan’s first Prime Minister) decided to assert sovereignty over the isles because they were, in international legal language, terra nullius–uninhabited lands, there for the taking.

Okay. Surely they were uninhabited at that time, if not unclaimed. But why did this announcement of sovereignty happen in 1895?

Because of a war! Japan, having established Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 (again, without consulting with the Ryukyuan people or China), had extended its maritime frontier southwards to include islands around Taiwan. Then in 1894-95 it went to war with China. The fighting concentrated in Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan.

This is really the 500 pound gorilla in the room, when we talk about the “islands dispute.” The Sino-Japanese War, which began on July 28, 1894 when Japanese troops attacked Chinese forces at Asan Bay, was an immoral, imperialist war. It is generally acknowledged among historians that the war resulted from a deliberate provocation by Japanese of Qing forces in Korea. (The Chinese had, at the request of the Korean king, intervened to suppress the Tonghak Rebellion. The Meiji regime citing a treaty with China insisted on their right to intervene too, although the Koreans had not requested this.) Just before that war’s end–when victory was certain, and Chinese opinion didn’t matter anymore–the Japanese government annexed the islands, which it dubbed the Senkaku Islands.

So–to sum up–having forced the Ryukyu Islands to accept incorporation into the Japanese state, the Japanese leadership in 1873 planned a mission to Korea, designed to provoke war. This mission was aborted but Japanese gunboat diplomacy “opened” Korea in 1876. In 1894-95 China and Japan waged war in Korea resulting in huge territorial gains for Japan.

Following Japan’s victory, a (once again) humiliated China was forced to accept the victor’s terms. It turned over Taiwan, as well as the Liaodong Peninisula in southern Manchuria, to Japan as war booty. The Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895 was surely a legal text, recognized by the major powers at the time.

(However: Russia, Germany and France–concerned about the rapid emergence of this Asian power, and about the “Yellow Peril” in general–jointly intervened to prevent Japan from acquiring the Liaodong Peninsula. Russia coveted this very lucrative piece of real estate and the warm water port of Lushun [Port Arthur]. Humiliated and outraged by the “Triple Intervention,” the Japanese government handed (rather, sold) its Liaodong properties back to China. Two years later, Russia acquired the same Liaodong concessions from the Chinese, fueling further Japanese indignation. Politicians and journalists fumed that white Europeans were allowed to colonize Manchurians, while Japanese were being excluded—how racist!)

That disappointment aside, the Shimonoseki Treaty of 1895 assigned to Japan “the island of Formosa [Taiwan], together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa.” While Tokyo denies that the treaty was necessary to legitimate its assertion of sovereignty over the Senkaku islands, based upon the terra nullius argument, it was also once able to point to this treaty to legitimate its acquisition of the disputed isles. The fact is, the seizure of both Taiwan and the Senkakus resulted from Chinese defeats in an unnecessary war provoked by Japanese forces in Korea.

Tokyo might have left those islands under the administration of its newly acquired colony of Taiwan (its “colonial university” as a Diet member proudly termed it). Had it done so, after the Second World War, the islands would have been returned with the assistance of the U.S. to Chinese control. But even before the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed, Tokyo drew a line on the map and declared the Senkaku Islands part of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture.

Hitherto uninhabited, the islands attracted a labor force. As The Economist reported (Dec. 22, 2012): “A man from Fukuoka, Tatsushiro Koga, was given leave to ‘develop’ the islands. Koga brought in some 200 Okinawans. They processed katsuobushi—dried, smoked bonito, out of which dashi, a staple stock in Japanese cooking, is made. And they caught the short-tailed albatross, which bred there, selling the prized feathers for down. The last of Koga’s employees left in 1940. (No family is so closely associated with the near-extinction of a once-abundant species.)”

Not a very pretty picture, is it? A Japanese capitalist employs cheap Ryukyuan labor to process bonito and annihilate a bird species for his profit.

Japanese officials arguing for “indisputable” sovereignty over the islands place much emphasis on a note written by a Chinese consul in Osaka in 1920 to the Japanese government. It conveys his government’s gratitude for the rescue of some Chinese fishermen who’d been washed ashore on one of the isles. It’s short:

In the winter of the 8th year (1919) of the Republic of China, 31 fishermen from Hui’an Country, Fujian Province were lost due to the stormy wind and were washed ashore on the Wayo Island, of the Senkaku Islands, Yaeyama District, Okinawa Prefecture, Empire of Japan. Thanks to the enthusiastic rescue work by the people of Ishigaki village, Yaeyama District, Empire of Japan, they were able to safely return to their homeland. With a deep response and admiration toward the people of the village who were willing and generous in the rescue operation, I express my gratitude by this letter.

But a consul’s thank-you note in 1920 hardly clinches the matter. This letter was written at a time when China was a semi-colonial nation at the mercy of multiple imperialisms. In the course of the First World War, in 1915, Japan invoking the terms of the Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty of 1902 had attacked German possessions on China’s Shandong Peninsula. At the same time Tokyo presented China with its “21 Demands” that would have converted China into an outright colony of Japan. Britain and the U.S. were so shocked by the demands that they intervened to modify them. But at Versailles, in 1919, the victorious powers recognized the transfer of Shandong concessions from Germany to Japan. Chinese students rose up–in the May Fourth Movement–in wrath at the Treaty of Versailles.

This formal diplomatic letter–by a low-ranking representative of a government cowed by Japanese imperialism, following the Sino-Japanese War, and additional humiliations during World War I–is hardly a statement of the Chinese people’s acceptance of Japan’s territorial claim.

Wartime Allies’ Decision: Japan to Be Stripped of All Islands Stolen from Chinese

Skipping ahead: during the Second World War, the Cairo Declaration of 1943, signed by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, stated that upon defeat Japan would be “stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 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.” For victims of Japanese imperialism, this was a breath of fresh air.

The Potsdam Declaration was declared in occupied Germany in July 1945, by U.S. President Truman, the British prime minister, and Chiang. (Joseph Stalin did not sign, since Japan and the USSR were not then at war.) It stated: “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.”

The Japanese government, unconditionally surrendering after the war, by the Instrument of Surrender of Japan signed on September 2, 1945, accepted all this. It also was obliged to accept two Allied (really, U.S.) occupation zones: one covering the main islands of Japan listed above, and another covering the Ryukyus, which came to host a large U.S. military presence.

It was by no means clear at that time whether Okinawa would remain under U.S. control forever, be returned to Japanese administration, or become an independent state.

U.S. Could Have Solved This Problem in 1945

At that point the U.S. military officials could have altered the political map, returning the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands from Okinawa Prefecture, under U.S. control, to administration by China’s Taiwan province. In 1945, China was still led by the anti-Japanese united front of the Communists and Guomindang. Taiwan was not yet a “rebel province” governed by Guomindang forces fleeing the mainland in defeat. It was a former Japanese colony whose liberation had been announced by the Allies.

The U.S. did not make such a change, however. Instead, it retained the isles as part of the Ryukyu occupation zone, using them for the exquisite sport of bombing practice. (Think Kaho’olawe or Vieques.) The U.S. was thus actively complicit in the retention of territory, as the Cairo Declaration put it, “stolen from the Chinese.”

In 1949, the Communists triumphed in China. Chiang Kai-shek’s forces fled to Taiwan, establishing it as their headquarters and depicting their rule as a continuation of the Republic of China announced in 1912. (The Guomindang met with substantial Taiwanese resistance as they established their rule.) Neither Beijing nor Taipei made a big issue of the U.S. jurisdiction over the Daioyu (Senkaku) islands at the time; there were far more pressing matters to attend to.

In 1972, after repeated demands from the Japanese Diet for return of the Ryukyu islands, the U.S. returned sovereignty to Tokyo. (The U.S. continues to dominate the islands, and has 26,000 troops stationed on Okinawa. Two-thirds of Okinawans polled find these “unnecessary” for Japanese security reasons, and the people of the islands complain of the noise and high rate of crime involving U.S. soldiers. But technically, yes, Okinawa is Japanese.)

This return of Okinawa followed the Nixon rapprochement with Beijing in February 1972. The Nixon trip to China had caught Tokyo by surprise, and there was much indignation that the U.S. had ignored its chief Asian ally in arranging the visit. (Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei responded by reestablishing diplomatic ties with China in September.) The “return” of the Ryukyus was in part an effort to repair hurt feelings between two very close powerful allies.

With the Ryukyus went the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands. By the security treaty, and the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971, the U.S. is obliged to defend them on behalf of the Japanese claim.

But U.S. officials, including former and current secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have stated that the U.S. “takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty” over the disputed islands. The U.S. Congress meanwhile has passed a law stating curiously: “While the United States takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, the United States acknowledges the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The unilateral actions of a third party will not affect United States acknowledgement of the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands.”

What does it mean to “acknowledge the administration” of these uninhabited isles, other than to concede de facto Japanese ownership (without insulting China too badly, by overtly supporting Japan’s claim of sovereignty)?

It means telling the rising Chinese: Maybe the islands should be yours, but having established this alliance with your historical enemy we must endorse its claim. Although the rocks mean nothing to us, we cannot tell the Japanese we will observe the terms of the Security Treaty in all matters other than the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands issue. That might give you Chinese the green light to seize them militarily. To maintain our alliance with Japan we must, regrettably, warn you not to take military action or you will have to confront combined Japanese-U.S. action. Foolish though it may seem, yes, we would go to war over this.

In other words, (again): It’s about the U.S. protecting its own hegemonic position in East Asia established since 1945, which is now challenged by a China seeking to reestablish its own historical regional hegemony.

Ratcheting Up Tensions

Japanese government officials maintain that Chinese (and Taiwanese) officials did not aggressively assert claims to the isles until 1971, when the U.S. was preparing to return sovereignty of the Ryukyus to Japan. They aver that the claims are based less upon a righteous indignation at the legacy of Japanese imperialism, than upon a UN survey in 1968 that found possible oil reserves in the area.

One imagines that, if the claims indeed came so late, their timing was in fact affected by the survey, and by the technical handover of authority over the isles from Washington to Tokyo. But that has nothing to do with the claims’ legitimacy.

During the 1972 negotiations between Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka,, Zhou reportedly told Tanaka that he did “not want to talk about it [the disputed islands issue] at this time. If there wasn’t oil, neither Taiwan nor the United States would make this an issue.” Six years later Deng Xiaoping on a visit to Japan suggested that it wasn’t time for discussion of the islands issue, “but with the next generation likely to be wiser than us, they will probably be able to find some resolution to the issue.”

In other words, while stating their claim, the Chinese were in no hurry to change the status quo. That does not sound like a regime rushing to access the possible oil reserves in the area found in 1968, or seeking a confrontation.

So what prompted an end to the quiet agreement to disagree? In 1990 a right-wing Japanese youth group set up a lighthouse on one of the islands. It constructed a second one in 1996. Meanwhile Tokyo declared an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the islands, claiming exclusive rights to marine resources within 200 miles. (The PRC claims a relatively modest EEZ hugging the Chinese coast.)

The PRC and ROC (Taiwan) found these actions provocative, responding with visits by oil-exploration vessels, ocean research vessels and warships. U.S. President Bill Clinton deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups in the region that year.

Since 2006, private groups from Hong Kong and Taiwan have challenged the EEZ and the Japanese Coast Guard; in 2008 a Taiwanese fishing boat and Japanese patrol boat collided. In 2011 the Taiwanese Coast Guard sent five patrol boats into the area to protect a fishing boat carrying activists, and the next year coast guard vessels from Taiwan and Japan collided. In January 2012 another boat carrying Taiwanese activists was prevented from landing on an isle by the use of water cannons.

In August 2012, seven Hong Kong activists managed to land on the island of Uotsuri. They were met by Japanese Coast Guardsmen, arrested, questioned, released to be met with a rapturous welcome in Hong Kong. (They were also cheered on by a massive PRC and Taiwanese online audience.). Soon thereafter a 20-boat flotilla from Japan, carrying about 150 people including eight Diet members, arrived in waters off Diaoyu/Senkaku. A dozen members of a Japanese right-wing group called Ganbare Nippon swam ashore and erected Japanese flags. Meanwhile in the same month, Ma Ying-jeou, the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) urged restraint and dialogue, while reasserting Taiwan’s claim to the isles.

In September, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide proposed that Japanese government workers be stationed on the islands. Then Tokyo exacerbated tension by purchasing (for $26 million) three of the islands that had been in private hands for decades. Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro, a highly influential right-wing politician, had been negotiating with the title owner to purchase the islands on behalf of the Tokyo metropolitan government. Ishihara had infuriated Chinese (among others) by his claim that the Rape of Nanking of 1937 (a massacre in which most scholars believe at least 200,0000 civilians were slaughtered by Japanese troops) was “a story made up by the Chinese… (tarnishing) the image of Japan, but… a lie.” He had also claimed that Japan’s annexation of Korea was justified by pressures from China and Russia.

The Japanese central government claims it made the purchase to stave of a deal with Tokyo municipal prefecture that would have heightened tensions even more. If so it apparently misjudged. Chinese President Hu Jintao had told Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko days beforehand that Beijing would regard the nationalization as illegal. The U.S. State Department at the time (which was of course consulted by Tokyo) had given “very strong advice” against the move. (This is just one indication that Washington would like this problem to simply go away.)

On Nov. 29 Beijing declared an extension of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to include the area around the islands it claims. It overlaps the ADIZ claimed by Japan, which is quite huge, extending from close to the Siberian coast to close to the east coast of Taiwan. (China’s claims have hitherto hugged its coastline.)

Aircraft entering the zone are obliged to identify themselves to Chinese airport authorities. The U.S. denounced the move but also–significantly, and over Japanese protest–advised U.S. airlines to comply with the PRC requirements. Japan ordered its airlines to ignore them. Just before the zone was declared, the U.S. sent B-52s to fly through the zone unannounced, sending the clear message to Beijing that this airspace is ours as much as it’s yours.

On Dec. 26 Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of Japan, another unrepentant nationalist of the Liberal Democratic Party, visited Yasukuni Shrine, where kami of 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined by staff who insist that the Second World War was a necessary, righteous war to liberate fellow Asians from Western imperialism. He prayed for the peaceful repose of all those who’d fought on behalf of the Japanese emperor, in all those aggressive wars, and signed the official guestbook.

It was another confirmation of the charge, heard all around East and Southeast Asia, that Japanese leaders have just not come to grips with the legacy of twentieth-century Japanese imperialism. The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying it was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” This was really a statement to Beijing: “We’re not behind this shrine visit, we don’t agree with it, we don’t want you Chinese and Japanese quarrelling because we need both of you–especially your banks to keep our crisis-ridden economy afloat.”

The Current U.S. Position

The U.S. wants to be in the middle, friend to both, but it can’t be.

The U.S. position (that it does not have a position on “ultimate sovereignty” but recognizes “Japanese administration” and will aid Japan if it comes to blows) is as much a distortion of history as Tokyo’s claim that the islands have never been anything but Japanese, and that “there is no dispute.” The fact is, the U.S. is responsible for the contested status quo, as the postwar superpower that oversaw the redrawing of maps in the region, the imperialist power that shaped its client states including Japan and Taiwan and signed agreements committing itself to the Japanese position.

Powerful voices in the U.S. foreign policy establishment are advocating U.S. neutrality on the islands dispute. Henry Kissinger, for example, wants to dissociate the U.S. entirely. He told CNTV in 2012, “There was no active American involvement that I remember in formulating a conclusion that was reached between Japan and China. And my dearest wish would be that China and Japan retain the monopoly of concern with that issue. It is not one in which the US should take any position on sovereignty.” (The fact that Kissinger is a moral monster, and the personification of U.S. imperialism, has no bearing on this particular issue.)

But the Japanese consul-general in Boston stated in a letter to the Boston Globe recently that “until the 1970s, when China first began to make assertions of sovereignty, there was nothing to suggest that the United States would even consider a neutral position.” Perhaps not. And Washington’s not really neutral now. It’s just committed to a contradictory position, occasioned by its past decisions made in times when it could call all the shots, and didn’t need to pay much attention to the historical sensitivities of East Asian peoples.

The people of this country should, however, precisely argue for a neutral position in a dispute between the countries with the second and third largest GDPs in the world, and which are the second and third largest U.S. trading partners, each of whom holds about a trillion dollars in U.S. debt.

It’s not just that “these rocks in the ocean mean nothing for us.” It’s that engagement on the side of the power that brutally colonized East and Southeast Asia between 1894 and 1945–and which has yet to adequately come to grips with its own history and properly educate its youth about that past, and whose leaders speak increasingly about the need to renounce the “pacifistic” constitution, becoming a “normal country” (read: normal, militaristic imperialist country)–in any future altercation will not help the war-weary people of this country at all.

To say nothing of the peoples of China, Taiwan, and Japan.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.