Editorial

China, Japan fussing over a useless bit of rock

Friday, September 21, 2012    

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MANY violent acts, including murder, appear to be senseless and without any comprehensible motive, but on more in-depth investigation the behaviour is explained as a reaction to being publicly disrespected.

Nations, like people, have a sense of pride and react with hostility when they perceive that they have been publicly disrespected. When a country is disrespected publicly before a global audience the reaction can escalate out of proportion to the insult.

The problem arises on several counts: First, it is a matter of subjective perception as to what constitutes an insult or disrespect and how serious is the injury, eg. the burning of a country's flag might be seen as a major offence. Second, the injury caused by an incident of disrespect may be indirect; for example, not giving due respect to a religious figure or holy place.

Third, nations are imagined communities of people, and some take the position that an insult to any person of a country is an injury to everyone in that country. Fourth, the insult could be accidental arising for example from ignorance of cultural norms or traditions.

Fifth, false accusations of disrespect mask the real motives; for example quarrels over maritime demarcation, in many instances, camouflage disputes over real or imagined resources such as oil. Sixth, the intensity of the reaction might relate not only to a contemporary incident but emanate from reservoirs of painful experiences dating back, in some cases, over hundreds of years.

Territorial disputes between countries are sometimes not about resources but about wounded pride and the embarrassment of the appearance of being disrespected publicly. A clear example of this is the dispute between the People's Republic of China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

This is a group of minute uninhabited islands of absolutely no strategic value and with no known resource value. Protests have erupted in China, ignited by the recent purchase by the government of Japan of the islands from their private owners.

The sentiments of hostility have a long history between these two intensively proud ancient civilisations, and hence the demonstrations in both countries emanate from a reservoir of pain and resentment. The feelings of hostility are fuelled by the feeling in China that Japan has not sufficiently acknowledged the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the atrocities committed during World War II.

Feelings were not assuaged by an apology from Japan's prime minister 50 years after the end of the war. Chinese protesters were allowed to attack Japanese businesses and vandalise Japanese-made cars by a government not known for its tolerance of civil unrest. Japan extracted reparations from China after the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.

Beijing has never been comfortable with the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan signed in 1960 because it legitimises US involvement in Asia.

Fulmination and posturing escalated after the 14th September purchase of the islands by Japan. China deployed six small surveillance ships in the waters near the disputed islands. These two great countries are embarrassing themselves in front of the entire world over some useless rocks in the ocean. This type of conduct is demeaning.

The Senkaku Islands should be neutral territory under the auspices of the United Nations or shared jurisdiction.

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