Two missed opportunities for Japan in island disputes

November 12, 2012

Since I have been requested to express my views on the territorial issues concerning the Takeshima islets and Senkaku Islands on several occasions recently, I thought it opportune to compile them into one coherent argument.

the outset, readers should be informed that I have not  contacted anyone in the Foreign Ministry on this issue. In  fact, the ministry departments involved in these issues  seem to be so busy that I have refrained from bothering  them.

To state my conclusion first, I fully support the Japanese government’s decision to refer the issue of Takeshima to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). South Korea is an ally of the United States — the ally of allies for Japan — and also one of Japan’s most important partners in Asia. It is therefore utterly unthinkable that a military conflict will develop over the Takeshima issue. That being so, Japan has no means to overturn South Korea’s effective control of the islands.

What the Japanese government should resort to at this critical juncture is to continue interruption of prescription (the establishment of a claim) so that South Korea cannot establish a fait accompli. If I remember correctly, in the past whenever South Korea made a move to create a fait accompli, including constructing a new structure on the islands, the Japanese side protested. A resolution adopted by the Shimane prefectural assembly on the Takeshima Islands issue was also an attempt at an interruption of prescription. The problem is that even though what Japan has done is nothing more than an attempt at an interruption of prescription, Korean public opinion, without failure, becomes enraged, unnecessarily damaging bilateral relations, every time Japan attempts an interruption of prescription.

In the future, Japan should appeal to the ICJ once every several years, although South Korea will predictably reject it. In fact, it is advisable to decide on the regularity of the appeal so that South Korea will not be agitated each time. In my view, this is the most effective means to achieve an interruption of prescription. Besides, it would be difficult for South Koreans to start an anti-Japanese movement when Japan’s action is a mere appeal to the court.

If Japan chooses to do this vis-a-vis South Korea, Japan should also be prepared to file a counter suit if China takes the issue of the Senkaku Islands to the ICJ.

If Chinese activists attempt to land on the Senkakus or if China sends fishing boats there to stress China’s sovereignty over them, Japan should not hesitate to arrest and punish the Chinese involved. Japan also should not refrain from building facilities or stationing Self-Defense Forces on the islands to strengthen effective control of the islands. Japan should insist that, if China wishes to claim sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, it should go to the ICJ, instead of taking such underhanded measures as sending fishing boats.

Some argue that, since the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory without question, it would weaken Japan’s position if it attempts to fortify its claim by enforcing effective control of the islands. I find this argument somewhat perverted. It is a strange argument that ignores the core of the issue, which is China’s refusal to admit that the islands are Japan’s territory.

The only way to solve the dispute over the Northern Territories with Russia is through political settlement. The Ansei Treaties of 1858 and the Treaty of Saint Petersburg of 1875 provide Japan with proper legal grounds for their territorial claim. But unfortunately, there was a war between the two countries that has since complicated the matter.

Toward the end of World War II, while the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact was still in force, the Soviet Union unilaterally entered the war against Japan, and in the confusing days after World War II, it occupied those islands, in whose hands they have remained since. This dispute should be settled by concluding a Russo-Japanese peace treaty. To do this, bilateral political negotiations are needed. This is why both sides officially recognize that the dispute remains unsettled between the two countries.

Although it is no use crying over what has already happened or has not happened, the Japanese government made two crucial errors on territorial issues during the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

When a Chinese fishing boat intentionally collided with Japanese Coast Guard patrol ships off the Senkaku Islands in 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately announced that these islands were within the range of application of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

Observing the Chinese behavior on the South China Sea in the past, I realize that the Chinese have followed a pattern of intrusion by fishing boats first, to be followed by establishment of a series of faits accomplis, and, eventually, by territorial declarations. I call this “salami tactics.”

After the U.S. announced that the Senkaku Islands were within the range of application of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, such salami tactics became futile because what lied ahead for China would have been a military confrontation with the U.S.-Japan alliance. I believe this is why China refrained from intruding in the waters around the Senkaku Islands for about a year afterward. I believe that it was after China became convinced that Japan had no intention of taking advantage of Clinton’s announcement that it resumed the intrusive actions.

The annual fiscal 2010 white book (endorsed by the Cabinet around the time of the collision incident) included a declaration of Japan’s will to defend the Nansei Islands (which include the Okinawa Islands and the Senkaku Islands).

If the Japanese government had promptly carried out measures to strengthen effective control of the Senkakus, including the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces, and if it had approved the use of the right to collective self-defense and pursued the path of strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance, the Senkaku Islands dispute may have been today a matter of the past.

Another missed opportunity was an announcement by Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev (currently prime minister) that he would visit Kunashiri Island (which is part of the Northern Territories) on his way to attend the APEC forum meeting held in Yokohama in 2010.

Although I was fully aware that my view did not carry too much weight at that time, I nevertheless repeated that then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan should have postponed his meeting with Medvedev during the APEC forum.

Although it was to be Kan’s first formal meeting with the Russian president, there was no need for Kan to meet with Medvedev at that time because the meeting was scheduled to be held on the fringe of the multilateral conference. All Kan had to do was to postpone the meeting saying that public opinion in Japan would not allow him to meet the Russian president.

Now that Russia is a more open society, Kan’s rejection might have triggered criticism of Medvedev among some in Russia for worsening bilateral relations by doing something that was completely uncalled for.

Moreover, it had not yet been decided at that time that Medvedev would give away his presidency to Vladimir Putin. I thought Medvedev’s mistake in foreign policy would not have been entirely bad news for the ambitious Putin.

Had Kan refused to meet with Medvedev in 2010, it might have at least discouraged Medvedev from paying another visit to the Northern Territories, which he did this past July. Japan missed these two precious opportunities.