G20 2013: Here's the Most Important Meeting of the Summit


The eighth G-20 summit kicked off today and caused no apparent change to the media buzz on the Syrian civil war. Reports of how "divided" the G-20 leaders are, with particular focus on Obama and Putin's lack of "personal chemistry," seem to be demanding attention. But if politics have to interfere — despite G-20's supposed focus on economics — few political leaders are paying attention to the icy relations between China and Japan.

This two-day conference is the first time Xi Jinping, general gecretary of the Communist Party of China, met Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (elected in December 2012) face-to-face following Japan's nationalization of much debated Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in September 2012. But the international attention on this territorial dispute is fading, and this is a huge red flag, as it gives Japan yet another furtive pass to feed the legacy of its imperial supremacy of 20th century East Asia.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku territorial dispute goes back centuries when Japan "discovered" the islands in 1884. Japan was a burgeoning superpower in East Asia, having defeated China in 1895, Russia in 1905, and annexed Korea in 1910. It was after Japan lost in the World War II that the United States took control of Japan's lands, only to return them — along with the islands — in 1972. And this is where the tension arises: Japan claims it found unoccupied islands in 1884. China argues documents from the Ming Dynasty in 1403 included the islands as part of its territory.

The ancient documentation, which includes a map created by Japan's own military scholar in 1785, indicates Japan's logic could not even persuade a kindergartner to give away his or her unattended lunch box to somebody claims it to be theirs. Yet, Japan expects China and the rest of the world to accept its occupation of the lands.

The gravity of this issue isn't simply about the ownership of eight tiny islands that are smaller than 2.5 square miles combined. Nor is it about other similar territorial disputes in which Japan is entangled. The real concern is breeding an unchecked power structure in a region that could set a precedent for the world and its potential (or already existing?) superpower.

For now, Japan seems to be getting passes on its claims for two reasons. One, there is no country in East Asia that could effectively limit Japan's influence in the region. Two, territorial disputes in East Asia are not significant enough to disturb the international community or other powerful nations that can meaningfully challenge Japan. (The United States says it will remain unbiased on sovereignty issues, although reports suggest otherwise.)

It's hard to nail down an answer — there might not be one. But looking at the struggle at the U.S. Congress this week, one can't help but notice the resemblance between Japan's diplomatic power throughout East Asia and the U.S.'s around the world. It's scary to think what will happen with a single global superpower without anything or anyone to put it in check.