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Friday, Oct. 5, 2012

Hotheads feed off Senkakus

LONDON — The Senkaku Islands dispute between Japan and China is potentially dangerous and needs to be handled coolly but also sensitively. But it is not equivalent to the British dispute with Argentina over ownership of the Falkland Islands as some Japanese commentators have argued.

The Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic were settled by British people some 200 years ago. The islands have a population of over 3,000. They have made it clear in free and fair elections that they wish to remain British and are wholly opposed to becoming Argentine nationals.

Britain and Argentina had discussed the status of the islands for many years before the Argentine invasion and occupation of the islands in 1982, which was a case of blatant aggression.

The British government, under Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, responded to Argentine aggression by sending forces to oust the Argentine invaders and free the inhabitants from arbitrary Argentine rule. Britain's response was wholly legitimate under the United Nations charter.

Unfortunately, despite a personal appeal from Thatcher to Lenko Suzuki, who was Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime minister at the time, the Japanese government refused to give Britain the support at the U.N. that we requested, instead preferring to give priority to maintaining Japan's trade with Latin American countries.

As British ambassador in Tokyo at the time, I was greatly disappointed by the unprincipled response of the Japanese government. I had pointed out to Japanese politicians and the Foreign Ministry that the Japanese attitude had implications for Japan, particularly with regard to the Japanese islands north of Hokkaido occupied by the then Soviet Union. I did not anticipate at that time that the disputes with China and Taiwan over the Senkaku Islands would flare up.

In Britain, concern has been expressed about the intensity of the nationalist outcry in China and Japan over these disputed islands. Nationalist inspired anti-Japanese disturbances in China may be connected with the forthcoming leadership changes in the Chinese Communist Party and may well have been orchestrated by Chinese leaders as a distraction. But there is always a danger that they may get out of hand or be used by the Chinese military to embarrass the political leadership.

The disturbances have already had serious economic consequences as Japanese companies have been forced to curtail operations in China to the detriment of Japanese and Chinese economic interests. Japanese companies are increasingly dependent on factories in China at a time when Japan has a growing balance-of-trade deficit.

The Japanese response, as seen from London, seems to have been overemotional and to have too many ultranationalist overtones. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to purchase the uninhabited Senkaku Islands from their private owner may have been intended to ensure that the issue was placed firmly in hands of central government. But this decision seems to have increased rather than decreased nationalist pressures in Japan.

Japanese nationalism, despite Japan's defeat in 1945, as well as Asian and especially Chinese resentment over Japanese aggression in China and other parts of Asia has never been totally quiescent. Its revival over these uninhabited islands should be short-lived if the Japanese government and voters are prepared to make cool and realistic assessments of where Japan's long-term interests lie. But there are disturbing signs that hotheads are determined to stir up further trouble.

Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro, well known abroad for his ultraconservative views, has done his best to incite Japanese nationalism over this issue. His son in the LDP appears to support his father's nationalist stance. Their espousal of confrontation exacerbates the problem by further arousing Chinese hostility toward Japan.

The election of Shinzo Abe as leader of the LDP has both positive and negative implications. On the positive side, as a short-term prime minister he strove to improve relations with China and South Korea. On the negative side were efforts to renege on apologies for Japan's wartime use of "comfort women" and to gloss over and justify Japanese wartime aggression in China and Asia generally.

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and his new Japan Restoration Party could inject some fresh thinking into Japanese politics, whose history in recent years has left Japan watchers ever more disillusioned, but he too seems to prefer nationalist rhetoric to cool and objective appraisal of problems.

The Senkaku Islands dispute is an emotional one for Japan not least because of the failure to solve the future of the "Northern Territories" (four islands). Japan cannot afford to allow the dispute to escalate. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces have significant capabilities, but are not in a position to take on the still-growing Chinese armed forces on their own.

In the final analysis, Japan can look to its U.S. allies, but America is unlikely to relish the idea of armed conflict with China, especially over some uninhabited islands even if there are significant natural resources in the sea area around them.

The economic implications of any further escalation of the dispute are potentially serious for Japanese industry and trade. The Japanese economy is still suffering from deflation as Japan's population starts to decline. Japanese nationalists who close their eyes to these implications are making a serious error.

Japanese politicians and the Japanese electorate should not allow these disputes to escalate further. If they do, they will forfeit support from other democratic countries and will damage Japan's long-term political and economic interests.

Diplomatic procedures for the settlement of disputes have not been exhausted. Some form of compromise, including possibly joint exploitation of any natural resources in the area, should at least be considered

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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