- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
Since Japan "nationalized" the disputed Senkaku Islands on September 11, much ink has been spilled in Chinese media on the resoluteness and integrity of China’s claims on the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu, a group of uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea with a total area of roughly 4 miles. After a Tuesday meeting at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, China’s state news agency Xinhua quoted Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi telling his Japanese counterpart "China’s solemn position on the issue of Diaoyu Islands, which have been China’s sacred territory since ancient times."
Regardless of which side has the better territorial claim, it’s worth pointing out that Chinese leaders in the modern era have an abysmal record of winning border disputes. Chinese leaders have conceded territory, "or at least given up long-asserted territorial claims, rather liberally in recent years to settle frontier disputes with neighboring countries," writes Edward N. Luttwak in an upcoming book on Chinese strategy:
"In bilateral negotiations, the Chinese side conceded 100 percent of the Afghan claim, 76 percent of the Laos claim, 66 percent of Kazakhstan’s, 65 percent of the Republic of Mongolia’s claim, 94 percent of Nepal’s, 60 percent of North Korea’s, 96 percent of Tajikistan’s, and 50 percent of Vietnam’s land claim (in sharp contrast to Chinese intransigence over its maritime claims). With the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation, successive negotiations were also concluded successfully on a roughly 50/50 basis."(Luttwak is in part citing a 2008 book by MIT professor M. Taylor Fravel.)
With the amount of attention the island’s are getting and China’s changed place in the world, it’s extremely unlikely Beijing will yield on the Diaoyus, or to its claims in the South China Sea. Perhaps the memory of past failures will lead to more resolute defense of the current disputes. But it’s worth remembering that despite the bluster, China certainly has given up "sacred territory" in the past.