Friday, November 12, 2010

Jerome Cohen on the Senkakus: swing and a miss

First, kudos to Cohen. Virtually alone among commentators on the Senkakus, Cohen has actually attempted to present the issue in a piece with some historical background. Unfortunately the source he relies on in making this argument is obviously driven by a deep ideological commitment to a pro-China stance. Here's what Cohen says:
China’s claim to the islets is based on the “discovery” of unclaimed territory and derives from a range of Chinese governmental contacts and references going back to 1372. Japan’s claim is also based on the “discovery” of supposedly unclaimed territory, despite the fact that official Japanese documents, several of which were unearthed by Taiwan scholar Han-yi Shaw, demonstrate that the Japanese government was well aware of China’s historic claim when it began to take an interest in the islets in 1885. During the subsequent decade, contrary to the assertions now made by Japan, its officials not only failed to complete surveys of the islets necessary to confirm their alleged unclaimed status, but also recognised that the matter “would need to involve negotiations with Qing China”. To avoid China’s suspicion, Japan chose to conceal its intention to occupy the islets “until a more appropriate time”. That time came in January 1895, when Japan, by then on its way to defeating China in their 1894-95 war, adopted a Cabinet decision that the islets were Japanese territory. Yet even that Cabinet decision was not made public until after the second world war.
One of Han-yi Shaw's reviews of the Senkakus dispute is available online here. It is long and gives a thorough review of both sides; extremely useful, and includes the alleged "smoking gun" (more like an empty blowpipe) on the Meiji. Shaw's political allegiance will become obvious when you read the ideological backflips he goes through to explain why, when on a Japanese map, the Senkakus are colored the same as China, this indicates they are Chinese territory, but when Taiwan is colored differently than China on the same map, this indicates it is Chinese territory. The main point is: whatever the actual historical situation, it is always Chinese territory.

It would be both exhausting and meaningless to engage in a point by point refutation of an extremely erudite, 150 page ideological construct, but I urge readers to review this paper because of the numerous maps and texts it refers to, and also because of its underlying thesis, which Shaw states on pp64-65. He notes, correctly, that in one sense what the Senkakus debate is about is the underlying construction of international law, which is of course western-centric. If we accept the "East Asian World Order" that Shaw argues for, with China at the center of a network of tributary states, then the Senkakus belong to China...
"Clearly the East Asian World Order was completely different from the European order under which nation-states were theoretically "equal in sovereignty and mutually independent" with a strong emphasis on "precise division of territories" and "balance of power among nations".
This is of course a self-serving Chinese nationalist position in which the current incarnation of China can own anything that ever paid it "tribute", rendering Asia a gigantic and permanent Beijing-centered Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The discussion is too long to post here, but I suggest readers carefully explore both Shaw's presentation of the letters from the Japanese government about the Senkakus, along with their actual content, and of course, his constant iteration of the 'traditional east asian world order' which is simply a grandly euphemistic way of saying that China owns everything that might ever had paid tribute to a government in Beijing.

Note too that this resort to the Traditional East Asian World Order is an implicit concession that under the international norms prevailing at that time and up to the present, Japan owns the Senkakus. Never mind that this dichotomy between western and Chinese world orders is a false one, since other peoples' conceptions of who owned Taiwan and the Senkakus are simply ignored in this discourse.

I'd just like to isolate a couple of points....

Essentially, when Shaw presents Meiji sources they are critically and suspiciously interrogated (and rightly so, I am grateful to Shaw for this better knowledge of the Japanese sources). When Chinese and Qing historical sources are presented, they are treated in what appears to be the most favorable and uncritical manner possible, the way a biblical inerrantist might treat the New Testament (by contrast Shaw rightly rips modern Chinese apologists who fall for forgeries and misunderstandings). In the Taiwan case, which he connects to the Senkakus because he apparently follows the argument that Taiwan was "returned to China" after WWII, a good example of this habit is his use of the gazetteers and the Qing dynasty records. These records, not to put too fine a point on it, frequently and comprehensively lie about the Qing relationship to the aborigines, presenting trade revenues as if the aborigines were paying tax, or saying that the aborigines were paying tribute to the Qing when in fact no such relationship existed or when in fact the Qing were paying a Danegeld to keep the aborigines from raiding Qing settlements or asserted that the Qing controlled villages that in fact were outside their control. David Faure in Chapter One of In Search of the Hunters and Their Tribes, instances this problem:
".....If the Han Chinese were not dealing directly with the Tsou, why then did they record that the Tsou paid an annual tribute in silver? The answer has to be, because no reference has ever made to any of the sums recorded in the gazetteers actually being paid on an annual basis, that the record for the Tsou was simply that: a record. Like many tax quotas recorded in the gazetteers, the appearance of the record does not imply enforcement of payment, or that, if payment was made, it was made in the amount stated. What the figure does mean is that at the time it was drawn up, a claim had been made and a liability was created. The liability for tax would therefore have fallen on the men who were now recognized by the local magistrate as interpreters, whose authority according to both the report of 1721 and the Wu Feng village story would not have been accepted by the Tsou people. The submission of the Alishan villages in 1722 was, therefore, fiction (p16)."*
When the Japanese came to Beijing and Taiwan in the 1870s and said the aboriginal areas were not controlled by the Qing, they certainly must have realized from long experience in dealing with the bullshit put out by Confucian officialdom, their own and others, that Qing records contained a generous dollop of fantasy.

Another issue is the conception of 'China' that existed prior to the Qing. Emma Teng's magnificent book on Qing travel writing in Taiwan, Taiwan's Imagined Geography, is online on Google books. I suggest a careful reading of the introduction -- one of Teng's major points is that pre-Qing China saw itself as a land power only, and saw the sea as its boundary -- the island of Taiwan was considered a distant land across the water which, as Qing official and visitor Yu Yonghe noted in his diary, had never in history sent tribute to China. Shaw's analysis above, which drags up navigational and defense records from the Ming, simply ignores the evidence from maps and texts, as well as scholarly publications and analyses of this body of material, that shows that the Chinese never thought of the sea as a place to extend borders across. Thinking about a China that included islands over the water within its own boundaries was, as Teng notes, a Qing innovation. Teng observes:
"The deeply ingrained notion that the seas defined the natural limits of the Chinese realm underlay the reluctance to annex Taiwan. As the Kangxi emperor's advisors argued, 'Since antiquity, no oceanic islands have ever entered the imperial domain.'"
Once again, it should be noted, until the announcement of oil in the Senkakus by Japanese scientists, both the ROC and PRC governments treated the islands as undisputed Japanese territory. Shaw himself admits that both Chinese governments were silent on the issue during the postwar period, and on p120 has a footnote explaining why he thinks that this silence shouldn't carry any weight in the dispute.

Finally, as Teng also notes, it has been Chinese policy since 1911 to inflate China out to the Qing borders, and treat the Qing empire and its colonies as "China" and their inhabitants as "Chinese". The consequences of this policy for peace in Asia this century are looking ever more grim as time goes by. Discourse that fails to explore this issue, or treats it as normal and unquestioned, is to be deplored.

Cohen has done awesome and influential work on rule of law and human rights in both Taiwan and China. He has spearheaded the Freedom Now effort on Liu Xiaobo. In this recent, excellent WSJ piece on Liu, Cohen is once again criticizing Beijing. All credit to him, and I hope to see a greater focus on more of these useful and important efforts in the future.

*There is more discussion of fictitious tax references on the following page. The book is excellent and should be on everyone's Taiwan bookshelf.
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums! Delenda est, baby.


無名 - wu ming said...

not to dispute your overall point, which is sound, but chinese imperial regimes incorporating islands "onto the map" 入版圖 does have a precedent prior to the colonization of taiwan, in the island of hainan, which underwent a similar sort of process from about the tang through the ming.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Korea also pay tribute to China for centuries? If so, does this mean that Korea is Chinese territory?

Michael Turton said...

@Wuming, Hainan isn't over the ocean. ONe could name dozens of littoral islands like Jinmen, Matsu, etc.

@Anon, yes, in fact Shaw lists it among tributaries. He is coy, but he appears to believe that both Okinawa and Korea are at least potentially Chinese.

Anonymous said...


無名 - wu ming said...

@michael - the sources i've seen do identify it as 海外, and the name hainan itself implies a significant degree of separation from the mainland. at any rate, it doesn't mean much for taiwan, which was both considered 海外 and generally viewed as a savage non-tributary and best to leave alone until the qing. teng's book is quite good at bringing that aspect out, even well into the qing.

@anon - vietnam and nepal would have to be on that list as well, if the criterion of having paid tribute to a chinese regime was used. if you count zheng he's trips, probably all of maritime southeast asia and perhaps the coasts of india, the persian gulf and east africa too, for good measure.

and heaven help eurasia if the conquests of the mongols count as an ex post facto chinese territorial claim.

Michael Turton said...

and heaven help eurasia if the conquests of the mongols count as an ex post facto chinese territorial claim.

Yes... and wait til Taiwan becomes Chinese. Then all the inhabitants of Polynesia will be Chinese too, since they are descendants of Taiwan aborigines.

Thanks for the info about Hainan!

David said...

Michael, this article is a wonderful history lesson. Thank you.

I just wonder why people like Jerome Cohen and Nicholas Kristof, who have done so much great work, get it so wrong when it comes to dealing with an issue like the Senkakus.

Michael Turton said...

Thanks David. I think the answer is obvious, but I have found that stating it aloud is not safe.


CG Lai said...

These are really childish arguments. The Japanese want the island for some time thinking they can kick the asses of the proud Taiwanese (who always have a kind of inferiority complex to the Japanese). Now that Chinese are much stronger, and they figure they can knick the asses of the Japanese, and they did. Now is only the feeble proud Taiwanese who are making non relevant argument here. The Chinese will get the island whether you like it or not.

Michael Turton said...

The Chinese will get the island whether you like it or not.

Yes, that's really the essence of the Chinese argument? Well put by FM Yang the other day, who insightfully pointed out that all the other nations are small and China is big. I mean, with devastating logic like that, who can argue?

Congrats! Your nation is headed for a big round of expansion like Germany in 1914 or Japan in 1937.

jerome in vals said...

I would like to take exception of CG. Lai's "the proud Taiwanese (who always have a kind of inferiority complex to the Japanese)."

Inferiority complex?! You have misread Formosa. That's "humility" and "self-denial" you are talking about, and it's integral to the Japanese sense of "美徳", the Chinese roots of which you are obviously unfamiliar with.

Formosans feel they are left-behind real Japanese present day Japan has forgotten about. When an average Japanese visits Formosa he is confronted with a mirror of Japan that both humbles him and straighten him. Here, in Formosa, it's back to the roots, so to speak.

What Taiwanese feel about Japan, you have no way to understand, unless you engage them with an humble heart. Then they will open their Formosan-born Japanese heart for you to listen and understand.

But are you ready to shed your continent-sized prejudices?

Anonymous said...

At least Shaw acknowledged many flaws in the Chinese argument as well. You on the other hand completely disregard the flaws in the Japanese argument. Your position on the Senkaku Islands are simply a derivative of your position on Taiwan. In order to justify your pro-Taiwan Independence stance, you must bash everything that is Chinese.

Michael Turton said...

You're welcome to discuss flaws in the Japanese argument, but it will be hard for you to overcome the simple fact that no Chinese government ever protested the Senkakus being Japanese or identified them as such on their own maps during the twentieth century down to the discovery of oil. I don't expose the "flaws" in the Japanese argument because the Chinese themselves accepted it.

This is merely a Chinese land grab which academics like Shaw support by prostituting their erudition, and anonymous netizens use as an excuse for a drive-by accusation which they themselves lack the brains and patience to support.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Turton, so what you're saying is it's okay to steal as long as you don't get caught in the act.

Let's say I have 100 books. I've had them for quite sometime, but never bothered to put my name on them because there are lots of them and it's never been necessary. Without me knowing, my neighbor manages to take one because he "found" it. He swaps the book cover and changes the title to something completely different . I visit his house and say, "nice book collection you've got". Some time later, another neighbor takes a closer look at the contents of the book. He notices some of the pages contain annotations in my handwriting. I am told about this and realize the book belongs to me. I protest and my neighbor says, "Ain't so! You yourself said it's mine!"

Yup, totally should have been looking out for my 100 books. But then again, I was really more concerned about my flat screen TV and other home appliances that started to go missing around that same time when my house was on fire.

Michael Turton said...

Let me recast your analogy so it says what is actually happening. Over the years you saw a book in your neighbor's house many times but never said it was yours. Indeed on numerous occasions you always affirmed it was his. Then one day you heard it was a valuable book so you decided to steal it. You then invented identities and history so you could steal it while claiming it was "stolen".

That's really what is happening.

Anonymous said...

You guys are both wrong.

The neighbor analogy fails to account for the fact that everyone on the street knows that the neighbor has been eyeing the victim's stuff for a long time. One day, he attacks the victim in his own house (and then again years later). The neighbor kills the victim's brother, assaults his sister, takes his car, TV, and then some (the book).

Years later, the neighbor is punished and is forced to give up everything he's taken from the victim, except for the book. And here we have someone accusing the victim for stealing and making up history.

Michael Turton said...

And here we have someone accusing the victim for stealing and making up history.

ROFL. The fact is that Japan owns the Senkakus, not the PRC. No number of bad analogies can cover that. But the use of history by academics in this is quite distressing.