Thirty years and hundreds of books and articles after the 1982 Falklands War in the South Atlantic, not to mention films, documentaries, and academic conferences, it may not be unreasonable to expect that the lessons of the conflict had been learned. Foremost among those lessons would be that the failure to develop the economy of a contested territory sends a signal to would-be aggressors indicating that it will not be defended, thus inviting foreign powers to use force. This is what happened when successive British governments failed to invest in the Falkland Islands, insisting instead on forcing the local inhabitants to “cooperate” with Argentina in the hope that growing trade and investment links would pave the way to an orderly transfer of sovereignty. In the words of a minister to his Argentine counterparts, it was matter of “seduction, not rape.”
Not content with forcing the locals to accept an Argentine presence in key sectors such as air transportation, London commissioned a report by a committee headed by Lord Shackleton (son of the great explorer) with the thinly disguised intention of proving once and for all that the Falklands were an economic ‘dead end’ and not worthy of any attention. The move backfired, however, with the resulting text reaching the opposite conclusion that they did have a future as long as certain essential changes and investments took place. This advice, however, was not heeded even though it succeeded in convincing some in Argentina that British investors were about to intervene, creating the need for Argentina to act promptly to preempt Britain.
The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, though, not history whose lessons have been learned in countries such as Japan. There, the government keeps blocking the economic development of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims under the name “Diaoyu”, with Beijing orchestrating a constant string of incidents. Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the islands, with Beijing and Chinese nationalists in Taiwan not too secretly hoping that this overlapping claim will help bring about the latter’s Anschluss.
Why is Tokyo still insisting on keeping the islands out of bounds for ordinary Japanese citizens? The issue is now under the spotlight following a string of incidents this summer and the proposal by Tokyo Governor Ishihara to buy three of the islands from their private owners with a view to their economic development. Ishihara later offered to desist in exchange for the Japanese Government building a fishing harbour in the area.
Bureaucrats at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, however, are still trying to achieve peace in our time with China and the government has moved to buy these islands, not to develop them as Governor Ishihara wanted, but to reinforce the policy of freezing them from any meaningful development of presence of Japanese citizens. Not surprisingly, this has been interpreted by China as a sign of weakness, and scenting blood the regime has authorized a number of demonstrations over recent months, many of which have turned violent. In addition to some attacks on Japanese citizens in China, a number of business facilities owned by Japan or somehow connected to the country have been set on fire or otherwise damaged.
In spite of this, many mainstream newspapers are supporting the view that it is endless talks, instead of a firm posture, that will reduce the chances of war. Their reaction to the widespread riots has just been to ask for more talks, more dialogue, more peace initiatives, in other words more appeasement. They seem to have forgotten the lesson of the long years of talks between London and Buenos Aires, leaving the Falklands starved of much needed investment, and they are suggesting the same approach: talks without development.
How has such an important lesson in inviting aggression by a continental power bent on maritime expansion been forgotten? Should not the events leading to the 1982 Argentine invasion have acted as a warning to the well-meaning Japanese voices calling for talks instead of the economic development of the Senkaku? Unfortunately two traits in human nature militate against this: the expectation that by being reasonable so will be one’s adversaries, and that elusive but seemingly natural and superficially attractive search for “peace”.
After decades of keeping the Senkaku Islands “frozen”, as a token of good intentions and in a bid not to “provoke” Beijing, there is not the slightest thread of evidence that the policy has succeeded in moderating China’s claims or the options to which she may be ready to resort to secure her objectives. Furthermore, Japanese weakness is not only whetting Chinese appetites but offering them an opening to undermine Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and ‘real’ democracy. Needless to say, preventing the island becoming part of China once more is a major Japanese national security imperative. We could even say that the value of the Senkaku Islands themselves lies to a great extent in their proximity to Taiwan, to a Taiwan out of China’s grasp. If Beijing came to dominate or even ‘Finlandize’ the island, Japan would see her Southern flank and some vital SLOCs (sea lines of communication) cut off anyway, regardless of the fate of the Senkaku.
Thus Japan has two options, just like Great Britain in the 1970s: the Shackleton approach, defended by Governor Ishihara, or that of the Foreign Office, still dominant in political circles. Although history rarely repeats itself exactly, those advocating the latter course would do well to examine some troubling historical precedents.
Alex Calvo is a student at the MA in WWII Studies, University of Birmingham