The Developing Conflict Between China and Japan over Senkaku Islands

by Tom Wolpert on December 5, 2013

The Senkaku Islands (China) also known as Diaoyu Islands (Japan) are the Excuse, not the Reason

The Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands, are a group of uninhabited islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea.  There is no civilian population and no economic assets are located on the islands.  Japan obtained control of them from the U.S., who had assumed control at the end of WWII.  There may be some undersea oil assets nearby, but then again, maybe not. They are located roughly due east of Mainland China, northeast of Taiwan, west of Okinawa Island, and north of the southwestern end of the Ryukyu Islands.

Japan’s sovereignty over them has been in dispute with the People’s Republic of China and  Taiwan following the transfer of administration from the United States to Japan in 1971. The Chinese claim the discovery and control of the islands from the 14th century.  Japan controlled the islands from 1895 until its surrender at the end of World War II.  The U.S. administered them as part of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands from 1945 until 1972, when the islands reverted to Japanese control under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement between the United States and Japan.  China claims that the islands are part of Taiwan. Japan does not officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state,and regards the islands as a part of  Okinawa.

The China – Japan dispute over some islands of marginal economic value is only illustrating the more fundamental point that China is too strong and growing too rapidly to remain a landlocked power.  If it weren’t this quarrel, it would be another. China’s place in the mercantile and economic world requires a full-scale merchant marine, backed by a full-scale and fully-armed navy. Who ever heard of a massive economic power, with a massive military, and a long coast line, with warm-water harbors and ports, and many trading partners, which could not assert a massive sea power? Think Spain in the 16th century or France in the 18th century. China is outgrowing the old diplomatic arrangements that were effected at the end of WWII in the same way an adolescent boy outgrows his clothes. Some one needs to say to China ‘we get it, but you don’t have to make a war to prove your point.’ The Japanese in particular need to revisit the post-WII understandings, but also to revisit just how Asians feel about them as a result of their conduct before and during WWII.

Asian Memories of Japan’s Conduct in WWII are Long

The move ‘Bridge Over the Rive Kwai’ is loosely based on the building in 1943 of a railway bridge in Thailand over the Mae Klong—renamed Khwae Yai in the 1960s—at a place called Tha Ma Kham, a few miles from the Thai town of Kanchanaburi.

According to the [British] Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
“The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma. Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre.”

When I visited my daughter,Laurie, in Thailand, we visited Kanchanaburi, a wonderful resort area.  We visited the historical memorial visitor center, monuments and displays erected by the Thai government.  What is noteworthy is that our (as an American) knowledge and recollection of this event is based, understandably enough, on the treatment of the Allied Prisoners of War.  As the quotation above notes, and as the visitor center near Kanchanaburi clearly depicts, the great mass of deaths caused by the Japanese military in building the railway were visited upon Asian civilians conscripted involuntarily or tricked into coming to the area to work.  The Thai people and surrounding Asian people remember rather well their treatment by the Japanese in WWII.


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