Imperialism fans the flames in China–Japan islands dispute

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 232 April/May 2013

At a 22 February meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kashida, US Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed that the US supports Japanese ownership of the Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Kerry committed the US to military support for Japanese claims in the event of an attack, the latest salvo of hostile US policy aimed at containing China’s role in world affairs.

Following the Second World War the US took possession of the islands and in 1972 handed them to Japan, to Chinese anger; they had been Chinese since the 15th century. In 1978 China concluded a peace treaty with Japan which left the question of the islands’ sovereignty as an issue to be resolved in the future. This rapprochement did not last. The capitalist crisis in Japan has compelled ruling class politicians to assert themselves internationally to regain domestic political support and to find new sources of profit. The Diaoyu islands – strategically located next to major shipping lanes and above some 100bn barrels of oil – have served as a focus. Tensions were inflamed when former Japanese President Yoshihiko Noda ‘nationalised’ the three remaining privately-owned islands in September 2012 by purchasing them for $26m. Mass popular protests erupted in 125 Chinese cities, demanding a boycott of Japanese products, destroying Japanese-owned factories, shops and vehicles.

The Japanese ruling class responded by whipping up nationalist fervour, which dominated the December elections. Standing on a platform demanding the stationing of government officials on the Diaoyu islands, the transformation of Japan’s military, an expanded defence budget, the rejection of criticism of Japanese war crimes and a neo-liberal economic platform, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Shinzo Abe won a landslide victory. However, the victory serves only to highlight the divergence between the increasingly bellicose Japanese ruling class and the working class; voter turnout, at 59.3%, was the lowest since the Second World War; pre-election polls showed major concerns over attacks on social security and unemployment.

Bellicose statements have been accompanied by bellicose acts. In January, Japan scrambled an F-15 fighter jet to follow a Chinese transport plane flying a routine patrol near the islands; China responded by mobilising two J-10 fighters to monitor the Japanese aircraft. In February the Japanese Defence Ministry claimed that a Chinese frigate locked weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese guard vessel on the islands; China dismissed this as a ‘groundless allegation’, claiming that China has ‘adequate’ evidence of Japanese close-range surveillance of the Chinese navy.

Kerry was throwing fuel on the fire. It is the latest step in a strategic ‘pivot to Asia’, aiming to reassert US imperialism in the region and to constrain China’s growth. 60% of US naval forces will be stationed in the region by 2020. Resurgent military ties with local states have been established; since 2010 the US has conducted joint naval operations with Vietnam, trained the Cambodian military in ‘counterterrorism’ strategy, planned an expanded military presence in the Philippines and conducted joint drills with the South Korean army. This April Australia, Brunei, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand will join the US in military exercises in Balikatan, Philippines. In March, Chinese President Xi Jinping responded by insisting that the military reinforce their ability to ‘win battles and…firmly protect national sovereignty and security’. US imperialism is preparing for a fight in Asia; its alliance with Japan offers a new front for its undeclared war.

Jack Edwards


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