Ian Buruma Is A Great Historian, But Like Everyone Else, He Doesn’t Understand the Legal Issues in the Senkakus/Diaoyu Dispute
The WSJ Saturday edition has a long review essay by distinguished historian Ian Buruma providing some historical perspective on the close to hot Chinese-Japanese conflict over the Senkaku Islands. It is a fascinating essay, and I was particularly struck by his argument that the Senkaku issue was essentially ignored by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaopoing, whereas today’s comparatively weaker Chinese leaders cannot afford to downplay it.
As a historian, Burama sees this conflict as driven almost entirely by nationalist forces in both China and Japan (but mostly China) for contemporary political reasons rather than for deepseated historical animosities. This is a view that is worth keeping in mind.
But I have one quibble with Buruma’s narrative. He first describes the Senkakus as part of the territorial booty acquired in Japan’s 1895 military victory over China. But this is not the official Japanese view of how Japan acquired sovereignty over the Senkakus because everything that was acquired in 1895 (like Taiwan) was returned to China in the post-World War II settlement. Japan’s view is that the Senkakus had perhaps had been part of Okinawa, but at any rate, had never been part of China pre-1895.
Buruma later describes the Senkakus as part of Okinawa that was returned to Japan in 1971. But now he adopts the Japanese view of the legal position, and rejects China’s view that the Senkakus were never part of Okinawa. But the U.S. acknowledged that there was a difference between the two island entities when it returned both in 1971 to Japan.
This is not really to criticize Buruma, whose writing I admire. Rather, it is to highlight just how confusing the legal background to this territorial dispute is. Even historians can’t keep the positions straight. How will we ever expect the politicians to do so.