This weekend, at a local food fair in Shanghai held not far from where I live, crowds of eager customers huddled around a booth selling fish. The fish were caught near a disputed island chain known in China as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkakus (the main island is called “fishing” in both languages). The 1,000-kilogram batch reportedly sold out within hours. Recently, the Chinese government has encouraged fishermen to venture into this politically gray area, in an aggressive move to assert its claims of sovereignty.
Chinese media reports of the story emphasized the patriotic fervor of the locals buying the fish. Indeed, those interviewed voiced enthusiastic support for the Chinese government’s claims over the Japan-controlled islands, with several stating they are buying the fish specifically because it’s from the Diaoyu.
Over the years, the Chinese government has enjoyed remarkable success in convincing the people that the Diaoyu Islands are central to China’s national interests, that the dispute is a matter of sovereign principles and that the islands are worth defending at all costs, even war.
None of these assertions are true.
Although the seaboard surrounding the islands is said to contain rich oil and gas deposits, the decades-long standoff has prevented either country from tapping into these resources. As it stands today, the island chain resembles little more than tiny specks in the East China Sea.
Meanwhile, consider the dangers of imprudent action. Two weeks ago, Chinese and Japanese warplanes went head to head above the disputed islands. China had sent a civilian surveillance plane to fly near the area, and Japan responded with F-15s. China promptly launched fighter jets of its own. Now military hawks in China are talking about war, and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s nationalistic prime minister, seems determined to hold his ground.
At stake is the potential disruption of the world’s second- and third-largest economies — the largest one too, if we count the U.S., which has a mutual defense pact with Japan. Japan is China’s third-largest trading partner, behind only the European Union and the U.S., while China has been Japan’s largest for five years running. The two countries depend on one another for trade, and both are essential to maintaining world economic order.
Perhaps more valuable — and certainly more fragile — is the mutual respect and friendship that the two peoples have managed to build over the past 40 years through travel, cultural exchanges and eventually, the Internet.
When I went to Osaka last summer, almost every store along Shinsaibashi-suji, the main shopping street in the city, put out signs written in simplified Chinese welcoming tourists from the mainland. In Kyoto, in front of Kyomizu-dera, a world-famous Buddhist temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site, my friend and I asked a man to take a picture for us. He opened his mouth, and out came perfect Shanghainese.
In Hakodate, Hokkaido, where I studied Japanese for two months, my Japanese host family loved to show me pictures of the exchange students that had lived with them throughout the years. The students came from all over the world, but over half were Chinese. I’m sure many of them left with the same unforgettable impressions of the Hokkaido summer as I did — the delicious briny breeze, the salmon slices that melted instantly in your mouth and the bright pink azaleas that seemed to light the streets on fire.
Hopefully my hosts will also remember me, for the Chinese dishes I made for them and for my watercolor paintings that should still be hanging in their living room.
The peoples of China and Japan have too much in common and too much to lose by engaging in a feud over these tiny islands. The two governments know this simple truth, but the nationalistic rhetoric and aggressive threats that they employ can easily lead to consequences that are sure to be disastrous.
Yet neither party can back down now, as the issue has become too closely tied to national prestige and domestic politics. That’s why the only solution will be the joint development of the islands.
The faster both countries can take their warplanes out of the skies and embrace a shared future for the islands, the faster they will be able to send in more fishing boats and prospecting ships. Hopefully the next time fish from the Senkakus are sold in China, people will take them for what they are — just fish.
Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .