Tiny Islands, Big Worries: What's Really Driving The China-Japan Showdown

Demonstrators in Tokyo in September 2012
Demonstrators in Tokyo in September 2012
Philippe Pons

TOKYO - While he was Prime Minister of Japan from September 2009 to June 2010, Yukio Hatoyama did not demonstrate a particularly acute political vision. But when he visited Beijing recently, he showed common sense shared by many Japanese but seldom seen in their leaders – he admitted that there was a “territorial disagreement” between Japan and China.

Was this a wise move? Coast guards, boats and fighter planes from both countries have been defying each other at sea and in the skies around the disputed Senkaku islands ("Diaoyu" in Chinese). Tokyo announced on Jan. 29 that a 600-men and a 12-ship contingent would be sent to keep an eye on the archipelago. In this context, it is totally “politically incorrect” to even admit that there is a dispute. The question is not even open for debate. End of discussion. “If we look at the historical facts, there is indeed a disagreement,” admitted Hatoyama: “Both parties must find a solution and we must admit that there are conflicting points of views. We will never find a solution if we stay in complete denial.”

This statement, which made the front pages of Chinese newspapers, was qualified by the Japanese government spokesman as “very unfortunate coming from a former Prime Minister.”

Hatoyama continued his Chinese trip by visiting the Nanking Massacre memorial. According to China, in December 1937, 300,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers were slaughtered by the Japanese imperial army. Whatever the number of victims – this is the subject of much controversial as well – it is indisputable that the massacre occurred. This tragic episode is minimized and often denied by the Japanese right wing.

In his policy overview speech to the Parliament on Jan. 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe focused on economical questions instead of getting into the historical revisionism he is so fond of. Without explicitly naming China, he assessed the necessity to “take all possible measures,” to defend Japan’s “territory, territorial waters and airspace.” The day before, he had announced an increase in military spending – the first increase in 11 years – as well as his intention to beef up defense forces around the Senkaku Islands and other southwestern Japanese territories.

Source: Wikimedia

Even though there are talks underway between Beijing and Tokyo, an agreement on the disputed islands seems out of question as long as both parties hold their positions. Tokyo’s refusal to admit there is a problem is just as bad as Beijing’s refusal to admit that the Senkaku Islands have been administered by Japan for decades.

Historical mistrust

Beijing said it was “strongly dissatisfied,” after former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida “We acknowledge the islands are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration."

The disputed islands are protected under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that obliges the U.S. to defend Japan in case of hostilities. In fact, one of the islands was used in the past for military drills by the U.S. forces based in Japan – even though at the time Beijing didn’t move a finger.

Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its dispute with China paired with China’s refusal to acknowledge reality is not conducive for negotiations. What’s more, the territorial dispute is part of a larger and long-running rivalry between the two countries. Even though it is in decline, Japan is economically much richer than China and its army is better trained and better equipped. But the balance of power can shift very quickly.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the Senkaku Islands are valuable for both countries – not only because their surrounding waters are rich in natural resources but also because they form a string of islands stretching from Japan to the Philippines, and granting access to important sea routes. This is the route tankers and cargos use to go from Japan to southeast Asia and the Middle East. This could also be a perfect route for Chinese submarines wanting to go undetected through the Pacific.

These geopolitical issues come on top of a historical – and bilateral – intolerance between both countries. However, historical distrust shouldn’t influence relations between neighboring countries. Political posturing fuels the dispute and increases the risk of diplomatic incidents.

The fragmented Japanese political parties are using this issue as a rallying cause, while the new Chinese leaders are using the dispute to drown out internal issues with nationalism. There is not much cause to be optimistic for a quick outcome. Who of Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping will be the first to show some courage and moderation by placing these tiny islands into a much wider context?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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