Austin Bay

2012 was not an easy year for diplomats, defense officials and cartographers addressing Asian border disputes.

In September 2012, a senior Chinese general angrily suggested that China should prepare for war with Japan. Control over five tiny islets was his immediate casus belli.

Located in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Taiwan and midway between China's coastline and the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Chinese dub the disputed micro-archipelago the Diaoyus. Japanese maps, however, label them the Senkakus.

Don't think never the twain shall meet. Google's map site wisely employs both names. So do international diplomats promoting nonviolent resolution of a historically tangled and passion-stirring territorial conflict involving the world's second (China) and third (Japan) largest economies.

Google also adds an alternative pronunciation of Diaoyus which I'm told is favored by Taiwan. Taiwan is a far less obscure island whose control mainland China disputes. A diplomatic mapmaker would include the Taiwanese moniker. Taiwan, in its Republic of China guise, also claims the islands.

Drill down on Google's impartial satellite photo, and you'll discover the largest islet is perhaps three kilometers long. All told, the Diaoyus/Senkakus have a surface area of seven square kilometers. In addition to the islets, maritime charts identify three rocks that permanently break the surface. When it comes to diplomatically parsing maritime borders, wave-raked rocks can matter. The islets are also uninhabited. Anyone claiming to be a Senkakuite is a fraud.

So the Sino-Japanese struggle isn't over land mass or people. At a strictly quantitative square-kilometer level, the dispute is over the right to control the resource-rich seabed surrounding the islands. However, oil and fishing grounds aren't the only conflict triggers. Bad history between the antagonists, mutual suspicion and national pride also drive the conflict. Japan is deeply worried about China's growing naval power.

Old history and old maps can fuel new wars. China bases its claim to the islets on 15th century Ming dynasty maps and contends they were definitely Chinese territory in the 16th century, despite being uninhabited.

Japan, a rising naval power in the late 19th century, annexed the islands in 1895. For a brief period, a Japanese company ran, and manned, a fish-processing plant on Uotsuri.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
Be the first to read Austin Bay's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.

©Creators Syndicate