Between Shackleton and Chamberlain: Japanese options concerning the Senkaku Islands

The Falkland Islands: A lesson missed?

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 Senkakus – History repeating itself?

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.

Thousands of Anti-Japan protesters march in Shenzhen, Southern China

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

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Lessons from the Falklands applied to the South China Sea

 

Guest piece written by Alex Calvo, MA student at the University of Birmingham, specialising in WWII.

Tuesday 2nd October marks the beginning of UoB’s War Studies seminar programme, weekly seminars by guest speakers on a wide range of topics.  Fittingly, this year’s programme begins with an anniversary piece on “2 PARA Falklands – 30 Years On”, by Colonel (Ret’d) David Benest.

At first glance this topic seems to be of most benefit to those in the history and military spheres, however I would argue that this lecture would also be of interest to students pursuing degrees in other fields.  There are a number of strong reasons why students interested in international relations, geopolitics and defence and security, particularly in relation to East Asia, should pay attention to lessons learned in the Falklands conflict.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the successful liberation of the Falkland Islands after their invasion and brief occupation.  It is therefore an excellent occasion not only to thank the troops who took part in Operation Corporate, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also to reflect on some of the lessons from the war both at the military and at the political-diplomatic levels.  Although relatively short, the conflict was complex in many ways and even today there is ample scope for further research.

Flag left behind by 2 Para after the battle for Goose Green

As students of war we are not only interested in the past, although that by itself is often a powerful motivation to pursue our discipline, we are also keen to identify lessons to prevent, or if necessary to prevail in, future conflicts.  In the words of Mahan, “the great warrior must study history”. Although no two actual or potential conflicts are identical and as a result comparison and analysis must be approached with caution, the study of past wars provides a solid foundation to interpret current and future conflicts.

This brings us to East Asia, a region far away from the South Atlantic but which has this summer been regularly on the news due to a number of incidents and a high degree of tension, which at present shows no sign of abating.

 

The question I would like to address is as follows:  Are there any areas in which the study of the 1982 Falklands War may help us shed some light on the current developments in East Asia?  The following three points show instances where lessons from the Falklands may be applied to current events.

1.- The dangers of appeasement.  In the 1970s, successive British administrations sought to negotiate with Argentina while coercing the islanders to admit closer links with that country.  The Shackleton report, which made clear that the economy of the Falklands could thrive if some key investments took place, went unheeded.  In addition to this, many islanders were deprived of full British citizenship and it was announced that the only permanent naval presence, HMS Endurance, would be withdrawn.  Buenos Aires took all of this as a sign of diminished interest and evidence of weakness.  It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that the original code name for the invasion was “Goa”.

In the case of the Senkaku Islands, successive Japanese governments have banned their own citizens not only from settling on the land but even from visiting.  Calls to build basic infrastructure such as lighthouses and fishermen’s shelters have also been rejected.  This year Tokyo Governor Ishihara proposed to buy three of the islets from their private owner in a bid to develop them, but the national government preempted his move and purchased them.  However, their proposed policy of keeping the islands undeveloped in an attempt to appease Chinese popular opinion, backfired.  Beijing viewed this deliberate inaction as a sign of weakness, and a wave of popular unrest has followed.

2.- The key role of other powers. In the case of the Falklands, the Argentine decision to invade rested significantly on the assumption that Washington would press London not to react.  Similarly in East Asia one of the key issues being considered by Beijing is Washington’s reaction to a shooting war in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a landing on Taiwan or a blockade of the islands.  In the South Atlantic, the United Kingdom had Chile as an ally, whereas in East Asia most countries are at odds with China, including India, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  Security and defence alliances among maritime democracies are gradually becoming stronger but they still suffer, in the cases of New Delhi and Tokyo, from the failure of these two countries to conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

3.- The growing significance of asymmetric maritime warfare. Although it was HMS Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor, both sunk by air-launched Exocet missiles, which attracted the most attention at the time and remain widely known, the case of HMS Glamorgan, hit by an Exocet fired from the shore, provides us with a powerful reminder of the scope for small, mobile, camouflaged vehicle-mounted cruise missiles.  Although the enemy improvised its launch from a fixed position, current technology makes it easy to deploy these systems in a way which makes it difficult to detect and destroy them.  As Taiwan becomes increasingly unable to keep up with Chinese military modernisation, a number of experts are advising Taipei not to try to compete head on with Beijing but rather to develop systems able to withstand a massive initial air attack.  These systems would ‘survive to fight another day’ and would be capable of inflicting significant damage on an invading or blockading force while awaiting the anticipated international response.

 

It is therefore clear that there are parallels between the two situations, and it is important to bear these in mind when looking at Japan, Taiwan and China’s options in the coming months.  Another piece relating to the topic by Alex will also be published in the next week.