March 18, 2013

Can Everybody Shut Up About the Senkakus?

February 23, 2013

A demonstrator bares a shirt declaring the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as Japanese territory. Image via Al Jazeera

Prime Minister Abe was compelled to get into China’s grill about the Senkakus dispute in a Washington Post interview setting the table for his meeting with President Obama, claiming the PRC had a “deeply ingrained” need to challenge neighbors over territory.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs laid into Abe:

“It is rare that a country’s leader brazenly distorts facts, attacks its neighbor and instigates antagonism between regional countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “Such behavior goes against the will of the international community…We have solemnly demanded the Japanese side immediately clarify and explain.”

People’s Daily ran with the ball under the heading “How Japan Misleads the US”, proving that the PRC will not hesitate to take offense any time Japan makes an overt play for US strategic support against China—and will avoid criticizing the US on the issue in order to work the wedge between Tokyo and Washington a little deeper.

Global Times went with China Heaps Scorn on Shinzo Abe Remarks and added the interesting nugget:

Echoing the Chinese side’s requirement for immediate clarifications, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained Friday that the newspaper misquoted Abe’s remarks and had caused a misunderstanding.  I thought this might be a piece of ingenious Chinese self-consolation a.k.a. a lie, but it was true! as the WaPo confirmed in an article titled Japan says Abe’s quotes about China in Post interview were ‘misleading’:

“There is no comment made by the prime minister as saying that China wants to clash or [have] collision with other countries,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said. “As I said, as the prime minister said, we value mutually beneficial relations with China based on strategic interests.”

The United States is unlikely to be impressed by the Japanese government’s transparent desire to present itself to the US as the unshakable axis of the pivot, while rather abjectly backpedaling vis a vis the PRC. Also, the prominent play that the Washington Post gave to this embarrassing story seems indicative of the bemused contempt with which the Obama administration seems to regard the parade of Japanese prime ministers that it has witnessed over the last five years.

As long as Abe is going to try to play the pivot card, no matter how haltingly, the PRC will be happy for an additional excuse to grind away at Japan’s economic and political resolve, Sino-Japanese reset be damned.  I’m not particularly interested in the Senkakus. By geographic logic, I’d say they belong to Taiwan.  Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a map showing where the Senkakus are.

They are close to Taiwan and only close to Japan if one ignores the immense distance between them and the Japanese mainland and concentrates on some tiny islands in the Ryukyu chain instead.  This map doesn’t show it so clearly, but the islands are comfortably on the Eurasian continental shelf, and are separated from their purported Japanese brothers in the Ryukyu chain by the Okinawa Trench.

As Wikipedia tells us, this requires that the identity of the Okinawa Trench itself be put into play:

The existence of the Okinawa Trough complicates descriptive issues in the East China Sea. According to Professor Ji Guoxing of the Asia-Pacific Department at Shanghai Institute for International Studies, China’s interpretation of the geography is that “…the Okinawa Trough proves that the continental shelves of China and Japan are not connected, that the Trough serves as the boundary between them, and that the Trough should not be ignored…”

Japan’s interpretation of the geography is that “…the trough is just an incidental depression in a continuous continental margin between the two countries…and that any legal effect of the trough should be ignored…”

Enthusiasts for ambiguity will be overjoyed to learn that the truth is somewhere in between! as can be gleaned from Okinawa Trough: Origin of a Back Arc Basin, a joint study of the seismic and magnetic characteristics of the geology of the trench by US and Taiwanese oceanographers.  The rock composing the bed of the Okinawa Trench is originally continental crust, so score one for Japan!

However, the Okinawa Trench itself was formed by ongoing, violent geologic action associated with the subduction (descent) of the Pacific oceanic plate into the Ryukyu Trench on the east side of the Ryukyu Islands. The heat and ruckus associated with the melting of trillions of tons of oceanic basalt bowed up the continental crust into an arc, which then collapsed into the Okinawa back arc or trench.

This action was accompanied by the shattering of the continental crust structure of the local seabed, and intrusion into the seabed of the Okinawa trench of igneous rock melted off the Pacific plate as it disappeared into the earth’s crust.

As a result of the igneous upwelling, the Okinawa Trench seafloor is not stable as befits a hunk of continental crust that happens to be underwater. Instead, it is exhibiting the spreading effect characteristic of ocean basins, an effect which is continuing to this day, giving the Okinawa Trench an ever more dominant character as a dynamic, basaltic seabed as more of the melted Pacific plate wells up into it.

So the Okinawa Trench represents the border of the Eurasian continental shelf and the beginning of a transition zone of violent, high-speed geologic events associated with the Pacific plate’s subduction, the creation of the Ryukyu Islands out of volcanic activity…and has nothing to do, geologically speaking, with the comfortably continental Senkakus.

So score one for China!  Well, maybe score Senkaku geology an outright win for China.

China took the step of claiming the Senkakus as part of the PRC’s continental shelf propers in a report filed with the UN’s Law of the Sea treaty organization.  Japan apparently thinks that China has the geologic upper hand, as it has asked the UN not to rule on China’s submission, as Reuters reported in January:

In a letter to the commission, Japan’s U.N. mission argued that China’s submission should not be considered.

“There is no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of the territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based upon international law. The Senkaku Islands are under the valid control of Japan,” it said.

Embarrassing for Japan-and for the argument that China has no defensible claim on the Senkakus and therefore never attempts to defend them in international venues-but geographic and geologic claims butter no parsnips when it comes to territorial claims.  I hold the distinctly minority view that principles, be they moral, legal, or geographic, should have no place in the Senkaku issue.

On principle, the PRC is determined to make Japan pay the maximum possible price for standing on principle to defend its claim to the Senkakus. So far, standing on principle has gained nothing for China, Japan, or the region other than contributing to a state of polarization that is extremely gratifying to proponents of simple-minded hairy-chested nationalism and to the guardians of US, Chinese, and Japanese defense budgets. I suggest that, if China and Japan can’t agree on the Senkakus, they find something else they can agree on.

So can everybody just shut up about the Senkakus, already?

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  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    As far as China is concern, the Senkakus islands are partial war reparations. Japan owes China a lot more considering the carnage they did to the country.