Near the center of a triangle formed by Taiwan, Japan and China, there are some rocks, or islets, which the Japanese call Senkaku and the Chinese Diaoyu. The rocks themselves do not amount to much, but the geologists tell us that they rise out of a sea of petroleum. Japan, China and the United States are now taking up positions around these rocks of discord, in what is shaping up to be a sort of brewing cold war.
Beijing's maps had always included this territory in the Middle Empire. But, after three centuries of Japanese seclusion from the outside world ended with the peaceful-but-conspicuously-armed American visit of 1854, Japan not only admitted trade from Western nations but, having quickly beefed itself up with a steroid force-feeding program of Western technology, began to throw its weight around as a regional power. Particularly in Korea, which had always been a vassal state of China. This soon resulted in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895-96, to which Beijing sent medieval "banner-men" armed with lances and halberds and muzzle-loading muskets, while Tokyo's troops had repeater rifles and Gatling guns, and used them in a most businesslike manner.
The war was not a long one, and a victorious Japan substituted the Middle Empire as the dominant power in Korea, also annexing Taiwan, together with a chain of islands, a prolongation of Okinawa, to the south of the Japanese archipelago. Later the Treaty of San Francisco in 1945, which ended World War II, seemed to endorse these maritime possessions, but only rather vaguely. And during a 1978 official visit to Japan, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping agreed with his hosts that territorial disputes were to be put off to a likewise vague future, a point which, however, Japan has always denied. But that future has arrived, and is now upon us.
If these islands were in foreign hands, they might be used to detect the passage of a submarine fleet toward the central Pacific
In September 2012 the Japanese government purchased Senkaku from a prominent nationalist politician who had acquired it, probably with an eye to publicity. The irony here is that what Tokyo feared - that the new proprietor would provoke an incident with Beijing - is just what has happened as a result of the government's stepping in. China's Xi Jinping called the operation a "farce" and there followed a series of moves and countermoves by emissaries of both nations, and others from the Philippines and South Korea. The upshot has been China's declaration of an "air identification" zone over those waters, to which Seoul immediately replied by extending its own to overlap with that of Beijing. This zone does not mean that these are territorial waters, but it does mean that "intruders" are supposed to identify themselves and obey orders from a defense authority.
According to standard-issue Sinology, Xi is trying to consolidate his power by flexing nationalist muscle to the applause of the army. Recently republished, too, is a book by colonel Liu Mingfu called China Dream: the Great Power Thinking and Strategic positioning of China in the Post-American Age, in which it says that "China is now returning to where it had been for 1,000 years, after the century of humiliations." The argument runs that if these islands were in foreign hands, they might be used to detect the passage of a Chinese submarine fleet toward the central Pacific.
By treaty, the United States must defend Japan against any attack, and President Obama foresees that two-thirds of American naval power will be stationed in Asia by 2020, even as he is redoubling military cooperation with Seoul and Manila; while Beijing sees in all this a sort of encirclement of its coasts. A certain panic about the Asian giant is now in fashion. But the United States has powerful chess pieces with which to contain the growling Pekinese attack dog. One of these is India.