Monday, March 4th 2013 - 05:43 UTC

Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands: Another Falklands?

By Gwynne Dyer - Chinese survey vessels go into the waters around the disputed islands and Japanese patrol ships tail them much too closely. Twice last month Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft flew into the airspace around the Japanese-controlled islands and Tokyo scrambled F-15 fighters to meet them. On the second occasion, China then sent fighters too. Can these people be serious?

Chinese patrol vessels challenging the Japanese

The Argentine military Junta that decided to invade the Falklands in 1982

The rocky, uninhabited group of islets in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China, are worthless in themselves, and even the ocean and seabed resources around them could not justify a war. Yet both sides sound quite serious, and the media rhetoric about it in China has got downright bellicose.

Historical analogies are never exact, but they can sometimes be quite useful. What would be a good analogy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute?

 The dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the islands that the British call the Falklands and the Argentines call las Malvinas fits the case pretty well.

Worthless islands? Check, unless you think land for grazing sheep is worth a war. Rich fishing grounds? Check. Potential oil and gas resources under the seabed? Tick. Rival historical claims going back to the 19th century or “ancient times”? Check. A truly foolish war that killed lots of people? Yes, in the case of the Falklands/Malvinas, but not in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Not yet.

One other difference: the Falkland Islands have been inhabited by some thousands of English-speaking people of British descent for almost two centuries. Argentina’s claim relates to a short-lived colony in 1830-33 (which was preceded by somewhat longer-lived French and British colonies in the 1700s). Whereas nobody has ever lived on the Senkakus/Diaoyus.

Curiously, this does not simplify the quarrel. Neither China nor Japan has a particularly persuasive historical claim to the islands, and with no resident population they are wide open to a sudden, non-violent occupation by either country. That could trigger a real military confrontation between China and Japan, and drag in Japan’s ally, the United States.

It was to avert exactly that sort of stunt that the Japanese government bought three of the islands last September. The ultra-nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced that he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, and the Foreign Ministry suspected that he would then land people there to assert Japanese sovereignty more vigorously.

The Chinese would probably respond in kind, and then the fat would be in the fire. But the Japanese government’s thwarting of Ishihara’s plans did not mollify the Chinese. The commercial change of ownership did not strengthen or weaken either country’s claim of sovereignty, but Beijing saw it as a nefarious Japanese plot, and so the confrontation began to grow.

It has got to the point where Japanese business interests in China have been seriously damaged by boycotts and violent protests, and Japan’s defence budget, after ten years of decline, is to go up a bit this year. (China’s defence budget rises every year.) It’s foolish, but it’s getting beyond a joke.

Meanwhile, down in the South China Sea, a very similar confrontation has been simmering for years between China, which claims almost the entire sea for itself, and the five other countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan) that maintain overlapping claims over various parts of the sea.

Military manoeuvres are taking place, non-negotiable declarations of sovereignty are being made, and navies are being beefed up. Once again there are fishing rights at stake in the waters under dispute, and oil and gas reserves are believed to exist underneath them. The United States, because of its military alliance with the Philippines, is also potentially involved in any conflict in this region.

All this nonsense over fish and petrochemical resources that would probably not yield one-tenth of the wealth that would be expended in even a small local war. Moreover, the oil and gas resources, however big they may be, will remain unexploited so long as the seabed boundaries are in doubt. So the obvious thing to do is to divide the disputed territory evenly between the interested parties, and exploit the resources jointly.

This is what the Russians and the Norwegians did three years ago, after a decades-long dispute over the seabed between them in the Barents Sea that led to speculations about a war in the Arctic.

The Japanese and the Chinese could obviously do the same thing: no face lost, and everybody makes a profit. A similar deal between the countries around the South China Sea would be more complicated to negotiate, but would yield even bigger returns. So why don’t they just do it?

Maybe because there are islands involved. Nobody has ever gone to war over a slice of seabed, but actual islands, sticking up out of the water, fall into the category of “sacred national territory, handed down from our forefathers,” over which large quantities of blood can and must be shed.

China will not just invade the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, because it is not run by a drunken and murderous military dictator (as Argentina was when it invaded the Falklands in 1982). But could everybody stumble into a war over this stupid confrontation? Yes, they could.

18 comments Feed

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1 Britworker (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 06:36 am Report abuse
Once again, I do not see a connection?
2 Escoses Doido (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 07:15 am Report abuse
' hey dis rice tastes rubbery'

'faank yoah, I make it myself'
3 mastershakejb (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 10:12 am Report abuse
”because it is not run by a drunken and murderous military dictator (as Argentina was when it invaded the Falklands in 1982).”
Doesn't sound TOO dissimilar from Argentina's current dictator.
4 Justthefacts (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 10:41 am Report abuse
Allthough the article makes some sensible points, it overlooks a very important one- that a stupid war that costs both sides dearly can be started by the agression and/or stupidity of just one side. The side that has been attacked finds itself at war even if it has done nothing at all to provoke the attack. This was the case in the Falklands in 82.
5 GeoffWard2 (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 10:41 am Report abuse
The difference is in the balance of raw power between the protagonists.

China -v- Japan/USA/(Tiawan)/Phillipines/etc can be seen as (locally) 'pretty even'.
Argentina -v- the UK/TFI is a 'walk-over'.
Even ..
Unasur -v- the EU/NATO is a 'walk-over'.

But, true, the general principle is similar.

The trick is in diffusing and dividing, or in diffusing and maintaining where appropriate.
Face-saving is important in the public perception of international power-plays.
There will come a time soon where the world will rue the day that it allowed the lunatic minnows to take over the only world-scale face-saver - the United Nations.
6 mastershakejb (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 11:40 am Report abuse
5 GeoffWard2
Actually Japan's military alone would be a pretty good match for China's. Taiwan wouldn't be involved in any way, so I don't know why you mentioned them. They have come to grips with their relationship with China and don't much want to change it. Philippines is inconsequential, not worth mentioning. When you add USA power to Japan, China would be very decisively beaten. They have a lot of people, but very little, and very dated equipment, as well as no combat experience whatsoever, and very little training.
7 Rufus (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 01:00 pm Report abuse
Aside from any other considerations, Taiwan wouldn't get involved supporting Japan because they're also claiming the islands, so by rights it should be called the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai Islands dispute, or the Pinnacle Islands for ease of reference.

My personal opinion is that given that of the eight “islands” three are uninhabitable rocks and the other five are inhabitable (using the broadest definition) but uninhabited, the Falklands is perhaps not the best model, but Rockall might be.
Declare the five islands a UNESCO World Heritage Site, make it an offence in all three parties to go ashore there without good (i.e. agreeable by all parties) reason, let one country stick a navigation beacon on them to help everyone keep clear and then completely ignore them for the determination of EEZs (which I'm sure is the real issue here).
8 nigelpwsmith (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 05:03 pm Report abuse

I agree Rufus. It would be far better if they were declared a world heritage site, with the resources of the seabed/fisheries shared out exactly the same way the Russians & Norwegians agreed.

As for the Islands, they could place 4 flagpoles on the Islands. The biggest being the UN flag with the flag of each claimant at equi-distance from each other. National pride is taken care of, because their claim to the sacred land is recognised & shared, whilst each country benefits from the territory.

These Islands are really too small to be inhabited. They could have a lighthouse on them, but there is no reason that this could not be an unmanned one.

As for the parallel with the Falklands, it is only a partial. There are not three claimants to the Falkland Islands, because Britain has given the Falkland Islanders autonomy. They have their own government, so they only need the UK for protection.

The Falkland Islanders have always been willing to discuss matters of mutual interest concerning the exploitation of seabed resources, but Argentina unilaterally withdrew from any discussions, most likely because they believed that if they recognised the rights of the Falkland Islanders to negotiate, then they also had to recognise their rights to Self-Determination.

I'm very glad that the Chinese are paying attention to the Falklands Referendum & I hope the Japanese, Americans & Taiwanese also come. It would show that there is a non-violent way to sort out disputes like these, by talking - something that Argentina refuses to do with the Islanders.
9 briton (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 07:31 pm Report abuse
To compare them with the Falklands,
Just confuses the real issue,

These islands are [as stated] to small to support people
So should the UN get involved and use it for something,
The answer is NO,
The UN involvement would and may well escalate the problem,

I think,
The real reason this is ,in any dispute at all,
Is not really the islands,
But once again what is under and around them,
Wealth and minerals,
,is this not the real reason for the dispute today.

I may be totally wrong,
But I wont be that far out.

10 nigelpwsmith (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 09:48 pm Report abuse
It's a mixture of both national pride and resource exploitation. That's why the Chinese believe there is a parallel between these Islands and the Falklands.

If you examine the history of the Islands, you would feel sympathy for the Chinese position. The Islands were taken away from them at the end of a war, but given away by Japan at the end of WW2 & held by the Americans. They should have been returned to China, but the situation was complicated by the existence of Taiwan. That's why a tri-national solution would allow all sides to win.

It's Game Theory. No side can get everything they want, but they can get something that satisfies them, restores national pride and means that all three countries are partners in exploiting the resources, without any one nation dominating the others.

A UN flag surrounded by an equilateral triangle of the other three flags, no single ownership of sovereignty. All three having sovereignty, but none exclusively owning the rights.

The same solution could not be applied against the Falklands, because the islanders have earned the sovereignty through peaceful prescription, whilst Argentina lost it through extinctive prescription. The only flag that flies over the Falklands will be the flag(s) that the Islanders want.
11 olibeira (#) Mar 04th, 2013 - 11:37 pm Report abuse
The UK armed forces are a joke.

Argentina would defeat them very quickly.

Malvinas are an easy target.

Not much the UK can do.

PS: god bless the exocet.
12 mclayoscar (#) Mar 05th, 2013 - 08:12 am Report abuse

Can the UN be trusted to act fairly ?. Would not trust the UN going by the antics of the C 24 Committee.
13 LEPRecon (#) Mar 05th, 2013 - 09:04 am Report abuse
@11 - olibeira

God bless the exocet? So you are going to invade the Falklands using a weapon that is more than 30 years behind everything the UK has?

The UK's anti-air defenses on the Falklands would destroy any missiles that Argentina could launch, despite the fact that you don't actually have any missiles that could cover the distance from the mainland to the Falklands.

Nor do you have any aircraft that could evade our defences, or any ships that...well don't sink in their own ports.

Keep dreaming. In a few days time the Falklands will tell the world what they want, and Argentina's colonial ambitions will be ended before they ever really got started.

Your neighbours, Chile and Brazil, are racing ahead of you economically, militarily and democratically. They are becoming major players on the international stage, while Argentina isolates itself further by forming alliances with pariah states like Iran.

Argentina, the country that could've been, has been reduced to a never was. You're not even important enough to be has-beens.

Sad really. And all you can do is make impotent threats.
14 nigelpwsmith (#) Mar 05th, 2013 - 09:39 am Report abuse

Don't let the antics of the C24 committee colour your view of the United Nations as a whole. Whilst there are some groups who act for their own selfish interests, the Security Council is still there to prevent major trouble.

It must hurt the Secretary General, that despite all the work he and the secretariat do to try and resolve disputes peacefully, the majority of countries act no better than children.

In the end, it comes down to the permanent members negotiating over difficult problems to keep the world from descending into the abyss. That's why any moves by lesser nations to remove these permanent members would be very dangerous indeed.

Just look at the past 3 years, in matters such as Libya, Syria or Mali, it's been the same nations pushing for a solution that prevents massive loss of civilian life. Although some might say that Russia & China have been supporting the wayward regimes, it's more to do with protecting a client state or protecting their own strategic interests. As dictatorships, both Russia & China are reluctant to see other dictatorial governments fall. It's a reminder that they are working on borrowed time. Inevitably, all autocracies fall before democracy.

That's why Argentina does not have long. The Argentines will only tolerate so much economic upheaval before they get rid of the 'Bitch'.
15 mastershakejb (#) Mar 05th, 2013 - 06:39 pm Report abuse
13 LEPRecon
You're right about everything.....except Brazil racing. Brazil is too poorly managed to race even a turtle. Chile, on the other hand, yes, is already at least a decade ahead of Argentina and picking up steam. Chile can hardly still make out the form of Argentina in the rear view mirror.
16 olibeira (#) Mar 05th, 2013 - 07:05 pm Report abuse
13, what air defence?

That thing can be jammed. So It's no biggie.

PS: Argentina has ballistic missile technology too. Much better than anything the UK has.
17 nigelpwsmith (#) Mar 05th, 2013 - 08:38 pm Report abuse

What utter rubbish. When CONAE launched a satellite in 2011, they had to reply on a NASA Delta II launch rocket from Vandenberg.

Argentina does not have any rocket technology, except fireworks for children. You're lying again. Every time you post a lie, it ruins your credibility yet further and proves that Argentina cannot be trusted.
18 Clyde15 (#) Mar 06th, 2013 - 10:33 pm Report abuse
I see by your post that you have given your age as 13----or is that your IQ.
How many exocets does Argentina have.
How are you going to launch them. No ships that can go to sea.
You would have no aircraft now or in the future that could survive against a Typhoon.
Exocets can be fooled and diverted by firing aluminium foil decoys.
You are having wet dreams. Chile, Brazil and probably Venezuela could take your country apart without raising a sweat. You are a technically backward country whose only military technique is bluster.
Read some technical journals on military capabilities.
Of course you were world leaders in throwing nuns out of helicopters. The patriotic videos on youtube are NOT TRUE. Stay away from the big boys, you will get seriously hurt - a friend.

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