Wednesday, October 10, 2012

History and the Lessons of Israel in the East China Sea

Disputed Islands - Worth Fighting Over?
In the East China Sea, somewhere between Okinawa and Taiwan is a little collection of uninhabited rocks, collectively totalling about 6 square kilometers.  They have been considered Chinese territory at least since the sixteenth century - the Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands - but the Japanese conquered them in the first Sino-Japanese war and annexed them in 1895, calling them the Senkaku Islands, part of Okinawa Prefecture.  They were captured by the US along with Okinawa at the end of World War II, and as such were included as part of the Okinawa Reversion Treaty in 1972 that returned them to Japanese control.  Since 1900, the islands have been privately owned, since the 1970s, by a brother and sister from the wealthy Kurihara family of Saitama Prefecture.

For the larger part of history, nobody cared a bit about these tiny rocks.  The Japanese tried to operate a fish processing plant on the largest of the islands, but it failed.  They remained mostly isolated, uninhabited and ignored.  But there was one other event that occurred in 1969, while the islands were still under US control.  That year the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East released a report indicating that there were likely large reserves of oil and gas in the seabed around the islands.  And immediately thereafter, a long-simmering dispute was born.  In light of the threats and saber rattling, just last month the Japanese government took back full control over the Senkakus by purchasing them for 2 billion yen and nationalizing them.  Needless to say, the Chinese government was not pleased by this turn of events.

Now, as oil prices have risen to one hundred dollars a barrel as demand for refined petroleum spikes all across Asia, the availability of domestically produced energy resources has gone from being an economic advantage to a strategic necessity.  As such, the two largest consumers of fossil fuels in the region, China and Japan, now eye each other belligerently across the East China Sea, each demanding their claim be recognized, and neither willing to back down or compromise.  Diplomats, analysts and pundits are now talking openly about the possibility of an actual shooting war, ostensibly over the disputed islands but more accurately, a war between Japan and China would be over control of the energy resources under the waters of the East China Sea.  The economic and territorial dispute between these two Asian powers is exacerbated by their history of occupation and brutality over the last century.

It's very important to understand why Japan would be willing to confront a much more powerful China over a territorial dispute.  On its own, Japan could be counted on to back down before the shooting started, as it has already been utterly destroyed by war in the recent past, and would not once again be willing to go to war against an adversary that it could not hope to defeat.  But Japan is most certainly not on its own.  The US is committed by treaty to defend Japan, and even beyond that, the US has always seen China, as a communist nation, as a major natural global adversary, so Japan knows well that a war with China would quickly become a war between the United States and China.

Which brings us to Israel.  America is just starting to discover the risks and dangers inherent in an open-ended, unlimited commitment of military support to another, smaller nation.  That nation can easily become the obnoxious kid in the neighborhood with a big, tough older brother.  He need fear no one, no matter how inappropriate and unfair his actions, he knows, just as the entire neighborhood knows, that to stand against him is to find yourself in a fight you can't win.  America has now, by dint of its unequivocal commitments to Israel in every possible scenario, sacrificed control of its own middle east policy, and it is Israel, rather than the US leadership, that will ultimately determine if America goes to war in the Persian Gulf yet again.

So now we find ourselves facing this same situation in the Far East.  Japan staring down China over a remote atoll, threatening war and refusing to negotiate in the UN, knowing that if they miscalculate and war breaks out, the US will find itself in the thick of the fighting.  At this point, how many other US client states will see the lesson of Israel and use the power of the American military to drive their own interests, even if those interests run counter to American policy?  When the most powerful military force in the world is no longer controlled by its own leadership, but rather can be unleashed at the whims of the government and military leadership of various smaller nations, Americans should think very hard about their approach to international relations.  And the world should be very afraid.


  1. Reminds me of the Falkand Islands.

    Back when I was younger (and skinnier, too!).

  2. The best commentary on the Falkland Islands was done by Berke Breathed.

    Although I also may have done a cartoon or two in the strip I did for the campus newspaper.

  3. That was fun, Thunder.

    Intense - the last three innings were genuine nail-biters, with Reds on base all over the place, but that just made it cooler in the end.

    Now to root for the Nats, 'cause the Cardinals are an ass-kicking lineup...