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History not on China's side

AT last someone has done something sensible in the increasingly bitter fight between Japan and China over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands - and that is China. Beijing announced that it is taking the issue to the UN, it has never done anything like this before.

It can only have been decided at the highest level by new President Xi Jinping, who in the months before he was promoted, worked to get conflicting parts of the bureaucracy and armed forces to pull in the same direction on maritime disputes.

China hasn't gone as far as sending the matter to International Court for Justice where, if it were brave, it would.

A few years ago, Nigeria did, with its quarrel with neighbouring Cameroon over the oil-rich Bokassa peninsular. It lost and dutifully gave it up.

China only has asked for a geological survey by independent experts to ascertain where its continental shelf ends. The commissioning UN organisation is probably The Law of the Seas disputes chamber.

It came into effect in 1995 after decades of negotiation. It defines territorial waters and the exclusive economic zones which stretch to 200 miles. However, when the continental shelf extends further, the limit is 400 miles. Most nations, including China and Japan, have ratified it. The US has not, although it abides by it.

There are eight uninhabited islands with a total area of seven sqkm. There are rich fishing grounds and perhaps oil. In 1971, the US post-war occupation returned the islands to Japan and apparently China did not object. But, according to Meiji era documents unearthed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, in 1885, Japan acknowledged China as the owner.

Earlier this year tensions mounted when the governor of Tokyo decided to use public funds to buy the islands from the Japanese owner.

In September, China sent two patrol boats into the islands waters. In China, anti-Japanese feeling has been running high. This year there have been ugly demonstrations and Japan is losing exports to China and seeing the important inflow of Chinese tourists fall significantly. In the last two weeks, four Chinese warships and a plane have ventured near the islands.

The cocktails of the dispute are laced with China's growing animosity towards Japan. Memories of wartime atrocities of the occupying Japanese forces have returned to the fore. On December 16, Japan elected in a landslide the party of incoming Prime Minister Shinto Abe who tends to shun the truth about the war and thus provokes the Chinese. This is a disaster in the making.

There are two strains in Japanese political life. On one side are those ashamed of Japan's role in the Second World War and happy to live with Japan's post-war constitution which outlaws the waging of war. On the other side are those who chaff under these constitutional limits on military practice and support the writing of school textbooks to airbrush the nastier sides of Japan's history.

China is not an aggressive power - Tibet and Taiwan excluded which it has long regarded, wrongly, as its part - and has been more put upon than most countries. Professor Odd Arne Westad of the London School of Economics writes in his new incisive book Restless Empire: "The remarkable fact is that Chinese borders today are almost identical to those of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912)."

The aggression has been one way. The British reduced a good number of the Chinese to drug addition with their imports of opium from India, enforcing its will by going to war in 1839.

In the first years of the 20th century, China suffered imperialist grabs for territory and markets by the British, Americans, French, Russians and Germans.

In 1937, Japan attacked China, the first foreign attack on its territory since the Manchu conquest in 1630. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed, two million men were lost in battle and 12m civilians died.

In Nanjing, 200,000 inhabitants were put to death. Rape and torture by the Japanese were widespread and comfort women abused by the military. Without Soviet help, China would have been defeated, although US aid, both economic and military, was very useful.

Japan has never fully apologised for the war. Some schoolbooks and parts of the media emphasise that Japan was a victim of war not a perpetrator. Austria, the birthplace of Hitler, does this too. War criminals are still worshipped at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. Abe has paid his respects there several times and only a few years ago prime minister Junichiro Kouizumi made trips to the shrine.

Japan should watch its step on the islands dispute. History is not on its side.



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