On September 18, 1931, the Imperial Japanese Army created a crisis in Manchuria as a pretext for invasion. Dynamite was detonated in a train station in the city of Mukden (now known as Shenyang, in the northern Chinese province of Liaoning). The Japanese blamed the explosion on Chinese dissidents, and launched a full invasion of Manchuria. The puppet state of Manchukuo (the “country of the Manchu”) was established a short time later. Needless to say, the Japanese lust for land was not quenched by gaining Manchuria. A full scale invasion of China was only six years behind, and full scale war against the Pacific’s other great power, the United States of America, began a decade after Mukden. For many historians of Japan, 1931 also marks the beginning of the dark period of militarism which ended only with the cataclysmic horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of course, the Mukden Incident and the atrocities of the Second World War have been on the minds of many Chinese this week, as they have marched through the streets, destroyed Japanese products, raided Japanese department stores, and defaced the rising-sun flag. As of September 18, the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, the Chinese Communist government (which is generally disinclined to allow protesters to march through the streets) has allowed sometimes violent protests to rage against Japanese products, factories, and department stores throughout the country. In footage and photographs from the protest, the normal banners reading “Never forget the national humiliation!” are all present, and the red flag is waving wildly. Oddly, however, the protests seem not to be focusing on the specifics of the Mukden incident, but rather on a few desolate islands off the coast of Taiwan—the Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyu (in Chinese) Islands have sparked furious controversy in the past few years, occasionally interrupting bilateral trade between China and Japan. And here they are again, rearing their ugly, useless heads.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are a few rocks in the East China Sea. Although the Japanese and Chinese in the 1970s “agreed to disagree” over their status, their continued ownership by the Japanese has been a sore point for hardcore nationalists in China for some time now. Imagine the ridiculous and baseless passionate rage surrounding the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in the South Atlantic. Now multiply the dispute between Britain and Argentina by one billion people. Add on the unsettled historical hatred left by World War II (not to mention a long history of other conflicts).Raise to the power of the second and third largest economies on earth. And don’t forget the superpower bound to defend Japan against any outside invasion (that’s us!). Now we have some idea of how significant, and scary this dispute really is.
With that in mind, let’s be very clear on one point. This is not some kind of “free Tibet” argument. The PRC controls Tibet, and that’s not changing anytime soon. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, on the other hand, have never been administered or owned in any way by the People’s Republic of China. Not for one single day. The islands were taken by Japan in 1895 as part of the spoils of the Sino-Japanese War. After World War II, they came under direct US occupation (as did the entire Ryukyu Island Chain, including Okinawa). In 1972, the Ryukyu Archipelago (including the Senkaku Islands) was returned to Japan by the Okinawa Reversion Treaty.
The Chinese have to reach really far back to attempt to legitimize a claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Up until the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the Ryukyu Islanders were never directly ruled by any imperial Chinese dynasty. Instead, they shared a tributary relationship with both the Chinese and Japanese imperial courts. With this tenuous claim serving as the closest thing that the Chinese have to a legitimate claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and with the Japanese currently in control not only of the uninhabited archipelago but also the entire Ryukyu Island Chain, it is hard for this columnist to find any sympathy for the vandalism and passionate rage bubbling on in mainland China. At a certain point, the status quo has to be respected, as there is no reason why China deserves the islands any more than does Japan. Even with the recent flag-waving antics in Tokyo and the formal purchase of the islands by the Japanese government from a private family, the protests and vandalism in mainland China are unjustified—an over-expression of chauvinist nationalism.
Let’s remember, though, what September 18th is the anniversary of. The Mukden Incident was a contrived pretext for expanding Japan’s empire into what had until then been Chinese territory. What we are seeing now are the first rumblings of a rising China looking to throw its newfound wealth and power around. The Senkak
u/Diaoyu Islands serve as a rallying point for hardcore nationalist elements within the country and the CCP has never been averse to exploiting nationalist sentiment and historical resentment of the Japan and the West as a tool for pacifying a restless population.
The Mukden Incident was a travesty which led to countless tragedies. If radical nationalists in China are to be believed, and if these uninhabited rocks are truly to be “returned” to China “by any means necessary,” another Mukden may not be far from the horizon. Bear in mind that China claims the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands as part of Taiwan province. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and other unfounded claims in the East and South China Seas could be used as a pretext for further projects aimed at the projection of Chinese power, serving the interests of China and not of the world community.
Happily, the strong rhetoric in China can be interpreted merely as patriotic chest pumping in the face of an uncertain economic future and delicate behind-the-red-curtain political maneuvering.
On the other hand, we cannot turn a blind eye to the Senkaku-Diaoyu Island dispute. As tensions heat and cool in an absurd and politically expedient rhythm, the future of East Asia could be decided. Will the nations of East Asia willingly go to war over such small and insignificant islands? Probably not. However, if the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue is used as a springboard to a greater agenda (such as the “reunification” of Taiwan by force), the world may see an even more inauspicious Mukden lead to yet more cataclysmic horror in the Western Pacific.