So reads a headline in the International Herald Tribune, (“the Global edition of the New York Times”) on September 23, 2012.
Reporter Mark McDonald takes a semi-humorous tone in his story of the raging territorial conflict among China, Taiwan and Japan. By any standard, the uninhabited real estate is hardly picturesque or post card quality. As McDonald reports, the islets in dispute “are little more than remote shards of guano-covered rock.”
In any mediation or peacemaking project, it’s probably not wise to ridicule the parties or belittle the claimants. Still, “guano-covered rocks”? From my comfortable distance of many thousand miles away, living in a culture neither Japanese or Chinese, it’s easy dismiss this as a meaningless, petty dispute.
The real dispute over the islands is not about oil, gas, sea lanes or fishing rights. Instead, the prevailing emotion is a leftover bitterness from the war, combined with the persistent image of an insufficiently repentant Japan. As the analyst Daniel Sneider told Rendezvous. “It’s not about territory. It’s not about these rocks. It’s about much, much more. It’s identity, first and foremost. It’s pride.”
As the U.N. General Assembly met this week in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Japan and China to “let cool heads prevail.”
China traces its land claim as far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). This week, Japan stepped up its campaign to win the support of the global community for its claim on the islands.
Even when it comes to “remote shards of guano-covered rock,” disputes are deeply real to the parties involved.