At the beginning of this year, experts in international relations expressed fears about the start of a war between big powers during this interval. This would not be a hegemonic war, as defined by the theory in the field, one that involves all the big powers of the system and determines a new international order in accord with the victors’ will. For a comparison, we must think about the first and second World Wars, true systemic conflicts that brought a new global order. The fear expressed by experts refers to the probability of a war between two big powers determined by the wrong management of the tension between them, with the most often evoked variant being a military clash between China and Japan. Recently, ‘The Straits Times’ daily wrote: “Many wonder if the two regional powers will go to war again. While actual war is not yet in sight, a propaganda war is well under way. Chinese envoys to the United States, Russia and United Kingdom published newspaper commentaries in these countries, urging people to stop the revival of militarism in Japan.”
The abovementioned concern of experts is imposed by two evolutions of events. The first is the opening, more than a year ago, of the dossier of the sovereignty over the Diaoyu (the Chinese name) – Senkaku (the Japanese name) Islands in the East China Sea, while the second refers to the clash in the historical symbolism, with direct reference to the complicate dossiers of the bilateral Sino-Japanese relation during the last 100 years.
Some mentions must be made in relation to the first evolution of events, which we consider as being connected to the right of sovereignty over the respective islands. One must stress that, from reasons that pertain to domestic politics – or, this is what the Japanese public narration has it, at least – the Tokyo government bought these islands in September 2012 from a Japanese family, which practically meant the reopening of the contentious file. In support of its own position, China invoked historic rights – same as did Taiwan – thus raising a general problem for uninhabited islands: How can one associate today the legitimate sovereignty in such cases: based on historic rights, or by invoking (as does the Japanese side) the right of possession following the occupation/purchase of “terra nullius”. One must also remind that China went even farther by invoking historic rights over Okinawa – an island inhabited by a population that is Japanese in its vast majority – but whose option of loyalty to Japan is disputable and opposable, in the contemporary understanding of the prevalence of the inhabitants’ self-determination, to any historic right. Second, according to the consulted sources, the two sides allegedly reached a tacit agreement in the early 1970s on this dossier, leaving any solution in the future, as what prevailed back then – according to both capitals – was resuming the bilateral economic and political ties. Of no less importance in this issue is reminding the fact that, since Japan proceeded to formalising the nationalisation of the islands – with the act of purchasing them by the state – it essentially reopened the dossier and determined the retorts of Beijing. Last, but not least, this sparked an international campaign by both sides to bring arguments in favour of their respective positions, against the background of increasingly frequent tense episodes. These tensions accumulated toward a boiling point, which concerned equally the experts and the chancelleries of big powers. Some two months ago, China resorted to instating a no-fly zone above the respective islands, while Japan enforced modifications of its military doctrine and will soon operate constitutional changes that will entitle it to take some military measures. This succession of events that occurred against a background of requesting the possession of islands in the East and South China Seas by Beijing, along with geopolitical measures taken by other big powers – USA (“the Asian pivot,” among others), India (close relations with the states involved in land-request dossiers with China – Vietnam, for instance) – alerted the global public opinion, which fears a conflict between the two giants directly involved. Equally threatening is the systemic contagion launched by such a conflict.
The second series of evolutions refers to historic symbolism. One must mention here the gestures made by high-ranking officials in Japan, who paid visits to the Yasukuni shrine, built before the Meiji era of Japan (the beginning of western-type modernisation), in the second half of the 19th Century. This memorial is dedicated to the Japanese who fell in the wars waged ever since, also in the Second World War. Or, it also commemorates 14 Japanese war criminals, sentenced as such by allied courts at the end of the last global conflagration, which imbues these formal visits to Yasukuni with a particular historic symbolism. As it is known, during the interwar years and WW2, Japan launched a series of wars of aggression (the Pearl Harbor attack against the U.S. fleet on 7 December 1941 is just one of them), trying to build a regional empire. Or, such formal visits to
Yasukuni are seen by many nations as Japan’s lack of desire to reconcile with its past of aggression during the respective interval, especially against China and Korea, but also against other nations. The repeated official protests of these states against the symbolism of such formal visits to the shrine were ignored by Japanese Premier Abe, who on 23 December 2013 paid a visit to Yasukuni. Referring to this visit of the Nippon PM, the British magazine ‘The Economist’ recently wrote: ”Although Asia would be more stable if Japan were more normal, the shadow of the second world war means that the country’s neighbours worry that their old enemy is about to forsake pacifism. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, should be trying to allay their fears. He has chosen instead to visit a shrine commemorating high-ranking war criminals.” Not just China is unhappy with the present orientation of Tokyo. Korea, which has its own territorial problems with Japan regarding the sovereignty over some islands in the East China Sea, is equally upset with Tokyo’s reluctance to face its own past. As it is known, Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula at the beginning of the 20th Century and the tragic event of World War 2 are still vivid in the memory of many members of this nation. Both China and Korea meet on the same platform of historic symbolism when they protest against the recent moves made by Tokyo authorities, such as – among others – the visit of the Japanese premier to Yasukuni or the recently decided increase of military spending. A proof of this rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul was the inauguration of a memorial hall these days in China, dedicated to a Korean personality in the town where it mortally shot a high-ranking Japanese official involved in the occupation of Korea. Hailing the gesture made by China, the Korean minister of Foreign Affairs expressed the hope that the memorial will represent an “opportunity for Northeast Asian nations to set the path for genuine peace and cooperation based on correct historical awareness.” Worth mentioning, Japan formally protested against the opening of the memorial hall.
The possible negative evolution of events in this part of Eastern Asia warns the international public opinion over an insecurity hotbed of a considerable size.