Commentary / Japan

The Senkaku issue as seen from the Falklands War

by Robert D. Eldridge.

I read a lot of books, both for fun but also for my work as an academic. Biographies and memoirs are my favorite, but I do not limit myself to those genres alone. That said, one of the best books I read this year so far is the 1993 memoirs of Margaret Thatcher, who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

All readers my age and older will certainly remember her, and the close relationship she had with Yasuhiro Nakasone, who served as prime minister from 1982-1987 and is still fortunately with us today (at 101 years old). Symbolizing the instability of Japan’s politics with its usual rapid change in administrations, Nakasone was one of the six Japanese prime ministers who were Thatcher’s counterparts during her time in office, although he was the longest serving then and one of the longest serving in the postwar period.

If Thatcher had a good relationship with the strong conservative Nakasone, she had an extremely difficult time with his predecessor, the former socialist-turned-Liberal Democratic Party member Zenko Suzuki. Her frustrations with Japan during the early years of her administration were clear throughout her memoirs, citing Japan’s stance on issues as “lame,” one of the worst put-downs in sanitized English.

Nowhere was this clearer than in her disappointment with Japan’s stance during the Falklands War, in which Argentina, citing territorial disputes with Britain, invaded the islands, necessitating an eventual military response by the British.

Japan at the time was a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and in that capacity was critical of Argentina’s invasion as “violat[ing] the basic principles of peaceful settlement of conflicts and non-use of force of the United Nations Charter and that such action can never be accepted.” The Japanese statement added, “We strongly hope that the withdrawal of the Argentine forces will be promptly realized and that this dispute peacefully settled through diplomatic negotiations,” which Britain believed limited its ability to respond to the aggression with force if necessary.

Moreover, Japan did not take a position on the islands’ sovereignty, which was a poor decision to take in light of the fact that Japan has territorial disputes with all of its neighbors concerning the Senkakus, Takeshima and the Northern Territories.

Despite Japan’s hopes, the military junta in Argentina did not withdraw from the Falklands, which had been clear to Thatcher for some time but unfortunately not to Japan. Further, when Thatcher made the decision to use force to remove the Argentine troops, Japan criticized Britain. This deeply bothered Thatcher, as it should.

This month represents the time that the war ended (June 13), after 10 weeks of futile diplomacy and exhaustive fighting on a group of islands nearly 13,000 km away. Some 650 Argentinian and 255 British forces died in the fighting.

June is also the month that the Okinawa reversion treaty was signed between Japan and the United States, in which administrative rights over the Nansei Shoto (southwestern islands), including the Senkaku Islands, were returned.

Because the islands came to be claimed by Taiwan and China on the eve of reversion, the U.S. government wrongly, in this historian’s opinion, did not take a position on the sovereignty of the islands in support of its ally Japan, thus emboldening China and its false claims. This is the subject of my award-winning book “The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute: Okinawa’s Reversion and the Senkaku Islands” (Routledge, 2014).

Reading Thatcher’s book, I found it ironic and shortsighted of Japan not to have more fully supported the United Kingdom in its actions at the time of the Falklands War. I wonder how much Japan has learned from the incident, if anything.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referenced the war and Thatcher’s memoirs years ago in a speech in 2013 (shortly before Thatcher’s passing) before the Diet in the context of international law, but does he or his party (or anyone in the Japanese government) realize that Japan was also a loser in the Falklands War by not standing side-by-side with Britain, if not militarily at least diplomatically?

As an overseas territory and with a population of almost 3,500 residents on the islands, Thatcher responded with consistency and strength throughout the conflict, handling domestic politics and the media as well as seeking to understand the intent of the military junta in Argentina. But she had to navigate relations with other countries, including the U.S., an ally that was trying to mediate but doing a poor job, fellow members of the European Community, the United Nations and other countries around the world.

Her memoirs suggest how difficult a job it was at the time. She was a statesman in the true sense of the word, with strong convictions, a sense of purpose, and pride in her country.

I frankly wonder if Japan’s politicians are up to the test if the Senkaku Islands were seized. I have warned the Japanese government, as have other experts, that it needs to truly demonstrate administrative control over the islands through the following measures: place Japanese officials on the island; build a weather station, a better lighthouse, a heliport and a port for small vessels that may be in distress.

All of these administrative measures are non-provocative and non-military in nature. In fact, they serve as international public goods, benefiting the community of nations and clarifying Japan’s control over the islands. They remove the uncertainty over the islands and show the world once and for all whose islands they are.

Without these steps, ironically, conflict will eventually come, as China will feel emboldened by Japan’s lack of confidence, conviction and action. At that time, however, Japan might be unable to respond on its own like Britain was able to, especially if it has another wishy-washy leader at that time like Suzuki.

Robert D. Eldridge is a visiting researcher at Okinawa International University and the author of numerous works on the Senkaku Islands and Japan’s territorial issues.