Since I spend a lot of time thinking about the different ways in which communities conceive of territories throughout history, I have been especially intrigued by one, ongoing story that occasionally darts in and out of journalistic air-space—the dramatic tensions surrounding efforts by China and Japan to consolidate claims to the islands currently (sometimes) identified as either the Senkaku Islands (the Japanese view) or the Diaoyu or Diaoyutai Islands (the Chinese and Taiwanese names, respectively). The dispute over the islands themselves is, as with so many complex transnational disputes, simply a focal point for much broader issues about claims to fishing rights, off-shore drilling rights, and regional dominance in the East China sea. And ever since China asserted extended its claim to territorial rights in the region, establishing an East China Sea “air-defense identification zone” that (as is the nature of such zones) extends well beyond recognized sovereignty limits in asserting that foreign aircraft within the area must agree to follow Chinese identification protocols, other players have become embroiled in a broader dispute, including Malaysia, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and, most notably—for sending two B-52 Bombers into the area to almost immediately challenge such a territorial assertion clearly stands out as notable— the United States. For excellent overviews of the conflicting claims to the islands and the cause for regional tensions, see this and this other fine BBC article.
The issue came to my mind today because of Sino-Japanese tensions produced, as Martin Fackler’s reports it, by “flybys” in “overlapping airspace.” In a dance performed by various military aircraft (in this instance, Chinese Su-27s and Japanese YS-11s), these nations use the adrenaline and anxiety generated by hostile close contact to test out the limits of each nation’s claim to control of space. As this excellent Wikipedia overview details, each nation has longstanding historical claims: the Japanese claim derives from its 1879 annexation of the formerly powerful maritime kingdom of Ryukyu, followed by its absorption of related territories into the Okinawa Prefecture, coupled with 1880s surveys that determined the islands were terra nullius (uninhabited and un-administered lands), followed by the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the First Sino-Japanese War; the Chinese, who dispute that the islands in question were covered by the 1895 treaty, claim that the islands were used for navigation by Chinese vessels since at least the fifteenth century, and cite such instances as an eighteenth-century map in showing that the Japanese control over the islands throughout most of the twentieth century was unwarranted. While various politicians, lawyers, and government officials dispute who should control these islands (and the fishing, drilling, and airspace rights that are attached to them due to modern conventions and international laws concerning sovereignty), Chinese and Japanese fighter jets play their ongoing games of chicken: as Fackler reports, Japanese jets have been sent out to encounter perceived Chinese air-threats 409 times between March 2013 and March 2014.
Since I have for quite some time suspected that medieval notions of territorial space differ strikingly from modern, national notions of sovereignty (I tend to follow scholars such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson in seeing national identity as a distinctly modern phenomenon, convinced as I am by Gellner’s argument in Nations and Nationalism that trans-class national identity is a product of industrial capitalism and Anderson’s contention that the notion of nations as static, strictly bordered entities post-dates eighteenth-century developments in cartography as modified by developments in print culture and Western imperial development), I am particularly intrigued by the question of whether the actions of the Chinese and Japanese governments are in any way comparable to strategic actions taken during the period in which I specialize, the Western Middle Ages. The Senkaku Islands dispute seems to me to be rather instructively a creature of our current time.
The strange dance of provocative jet flights, designed to necessitate responses lest the other seem to be ceding ground—or, rather, airspace explicitly outside sovereign jurisdiction, yet within a zone within which a sovereign power cannot too unreasonably demand the rights to be able to demand others to identify themselves—seems to me quite alien to the way in which Western feudal hostilities were conducted. In the Hundred Years War between the English and French states, for example, which involved some 116 years of hostilities, with large swathes of that time quite “cold,” as it were, nothing like the Senkaku / Diaoyu dispute seems even remotely possible. Sometimes, as can be seen in the very first years of the conflict, great stretches of time occurred during which, despite very English effort to initiate battle, almost no reaction could be elicited from the French, whereas at other times full-scale battles would occur immediately upon arrival of an English invading force (see Scott Waugh on the years 1337-39, in England in the Reign of Edward III). Without standing armies ever at the ready, feudal military actions would essentially have to depend on local circumstances and thus be ad hoc, and could not sustain an all-out, inflexible sense of territorial integrity to be defended anywhere that was claimed and at all costs. The technique par excellence of the Hundred Years war, the chevauchée raiding in which Geoffrey Chaucer’s Squire is expert (the Canterbury Tales), bore within it the traces of a fundamental randomness in strategy that seems alien to modern conceptions of static, continually surveyed and defended territory: captains, many of them sub-contracting from other, greater captains seeking to profit from raiding, would sub-contract with a number of soldiers, and each would loot and plunder in particular areas, with the larger strategy being to destroy so many material resources and so undermine the sense of security that the dominant players in France would feel compelled to talk terms (see Michael Prestwich, The Three Edwards). Chevauchées could strike anywhere, and were the usual order of affairs: while some were major campaigns led by major figures, others were small operations. The relative state of affairs in the war was measured, not in territorial encroachments, but in relative loss of wealth. Even in the cold periods of the Hundred Years War, no absolute sense of border defense seems ever to have been the point, since so much profiting from raiding had made plunder a habit that seems to have gone on, with relative quiet, even in periods of truce.
As I read with great fascination about the high-stakes flybys in both the East China Sea skies and in global media outlets, I am struck by how much the Senkaku Islands dispute points to a fundamentally different conception of territorial integrity than the one that I typically assume to exist in the English and French political cultures that inform the literary works in which I specialize. Perhaps I need to look elsewhere for such excessive medieval attention to borders—borders upon borders, really, since they signal a jurisdictional space outside of the state’s actual jurisdiction. But I suspect that the current brand of territorial policing being played out in the East China Sea’s skies points to an emphatically modern sense of territorial policing. I don’t think the more punctuated, ad hoc sense of territory that I see as central to medieval sensibilities has somehow been surpassed, a detritus in time—I just know that I need to look elsewhere than over the Senkaku Islands to find it working.