Emanuel’s talk on the problem with islands: Solutions for the Senkaku-Diaoyu Conflict

“The Problem with Islands:

Long term solutions for the Sengaku-Diaoyu conflict”


Emanuel Pastreich


The Asia Institute

November 2, 2012


The Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) are a set of uninhabited islands not far from Taiwan, the coast of Fujian, People’s Republic of China, and the Japanese island of Yonaguni in Okinawa that have become the site for remarkable dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan. The collision between the Chinese fishing trawler Minjinyu and a Japanese coast guard vessel on the morning of September 7, 2010 (and the subsequent detention and release of the captain of Minjinyu) made a long-brewing dispute over territory into a cause célèbre in China that has taken the form of a series of protests in both China and Japan of a severity not seen in since the Cultural Revolution.

The announcement by the City of Tokyo that it would buy the Senkaku Islands from its private owners, thus conflating private real estate with national territoriality, set off an even more virulent set of protests in China in 2012 that have created a sense of distrust and foreboding in Asia at a time when many looked forward to an age of increasing economic and cultural exchange. 2012 was slated for a series of celebrations to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and the People’s Public of China. All of those events have been cancelled or postponed. In fact, even an innocent conference of comparative literature to which I had been invited was abruptly cancelled. On the Japanese side as well, protests are planned and emotions have run high—a marked contrast to previous demonstrations that were widely ignored in Japan.


Link to original paper

One response to “Emanuel’s talk on the problem with islands: Solutions for the Senkaku-Diaoyu Conflict

  1. Craig November 12, 2012 at 4:20 am

    I’ve read the whole paper. I thought it a well-presented position, overall, with a few caveats that I’d like to inquire after.

    What do you propose as a solution? I think the analysis is good, but the solution remains mysterious.

    In the past, the porous, undefined border was possible when rivalries were dynastic rather than ethnic. With little sense of modern collective nation-hood, Japan was really a sort-of feudal farm: it was owned and operated by the ruling elite, for the benefit of the ruling elite. Much the same was true of China, where if anything competing national rivalries have never been far from the surface.

    Nationalism wasn’t all good, but there were some positive aspects to it. It bound the aristocracy to the people in a way that had never been done before; the “national” project put a greater emphasis on collective identity and repsonsibility than had ever existed. This was a largely positive thing.

    I don’t see how it would be possible, or even desirable, to go back to a situation in which a porous dual-loyalty kingdom like the Ryukus could exist, paying homage to two countries, whose sovereignty was as malleable as copper. Tibet tried to go this route, and look at its current condition.

    It’s my suggestion that rather than seeking incomplete solutions in the past, we look to the future, instead: binding arbitration and international dispute resolution regimes, and the ability to hold powerful but irrresponsible nations responsible for their actions, are very important.

    Even if China were to have the better claim, acting like a spoiled 12 year-old child and throwing sabres around should be actively punished in the international arena. If anything, we should be investing in solutions that deal with reality as it is. While you’ve fingered the likely cause of the difference between then and now (why it didn’t cause disputes before, why it does not), I don’t think you’ve come up with anything like a solution.

    Rewarding this kind of behaviour by either side is like agreeing with the man who responded to a neighbour not returning a wheelbarrow by blowing up his neighbour’s house.

    Sensible societies regard the provocation as an irritant, but the response as criminal. This is the proper response.

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