A couple of rocks and a hard place

26 October 2012


East Asia’s territorial disputes are a legacy of the Cold War and the shortcomings of international law and can only be solved by coming to terms with the past, writes YONGWOOK RYU.

In recent months, we have seen heightened tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Dokdo/Takeshima islets. In each case the sovereignty of the islands is in dispute. Senkaku, the Japanese name for the small uninhabited islands perched in the East China Sea are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu. Dokdo, little more than two main chunks of rock surrounded by 35 other smaller chunks in the Sea of Japan, are controlled by South Korea but also claimed by Japan. So why all the fuss about a bunch of lonely rocks barely peeping above the surface on opposite sides of East Asia’s seas?

The immediate catalysts for the current conflict were the purchase of the Senkaku Islands by the Japanese government and South Korea’s president Lee Myung-bak’s surprise visit to Dokdo in August this year. Following these events, all three governments intensified their claims of sovereignty to the disputed territories and increased the number of patrols in and near the waters of the islands. Although all three governments would like to manage the dispute, armed conflict could break out through miscalculation, misperception and fervent nationalism.

Cold War legacies
East Asia’s territorial disputes are legacies of the Cold War, stemming from unclear resolutions on sovereignty at the conclusion of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in September 1951. Although the Allied Powers had been leaning toward returning the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Dokdo/Takeshima to China and Korea respectively, the advent of the Cold War and, in particular, the communist advance and threat in Northeast Asia changed their strategic calculations. Japan took on much greater strategic importance for the USA, and these small islands acquired new strategic value. As a result, the resolution of the islands was left ambiguous. In fact, territorial disputes in East Asia fall neatly on the Acheson line drawn up to resist and contain the advance and expansion of communism across the region and the rest of the globe. It is therefore ironic that these remnants of the Cold War have now become the focal point of nationalism in the post-Cold War era.

Opportunities existed at a later time for the parties to resolve these disputes, especially when China and Korea normalised their relations with Japan. But, no progress was made, and in the end the parties chose the practical option of cooperation on other matters while maintaining prevailing ambiguity on the territorial disputes.

The adverse effect of international law
International law only adds fuel to the disputes’ fire, rather than helping to reduce tensions. First, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) raised the economic stake of claiming islands by institutionalising an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles around the islands. Given that many East Asian countries are resource poor and yet fast-developing economies, it comes as no surprise that regional countries intensify their claims to small islands as well as other features such as rocks, reefs, and atolls.

Second, international law severely punishes countries that do not react or make counter claims to sovereignty claims made by other nations. For example, if China had not protested against Japan’s acquisition of the Senkaku Islands, such silence could be interpreted as acquiescence or tacit acceptance of Japan’s sovereignty over them. In addition, any positive act of demonstrating one’s effective control could strengthen the sovereignty claim, and hence the countries that de facto control the disputed islands or territories have an incentive to implement acts that would demonstrate and further their effective control of the islands or territories.

Nationalism and history
Although international law fuels the disputes, it cannot explain their origin. As far as China and Korea are concerned, the disputes are symbols of their national independence from Japanese imperialism and colonialism. As such, the disputes are intricately related to history, and evoke the memories of national humiliation and foreign colonialism. On the other hand, for Japan, the disputes are primarily legal issues rather than historical, and hence in their eyes should be resolved based on international law. This perception gap between Japan on the one hand and China and Korea on the other is well captured by the statements by each countries’ national leaders.

For example, in August this year Japan’s Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko said that “the issue of Takeshima should not be discussed in the context of understanding history: it is the problem of whether an act of unilateral occupation is consistent with law and justice of the international community”. On the flip side, as far back as 2006 South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said that “Dokdo is not merely a piece of our land but one that carries historic significance as a clear testament to our forty years of affliction. For Koreans, Dokdo is a symbol of the complete recovery of sovereignty”.

The South Korean narrative is similar to the Chinese. In September this year China’s Foreign Minister to the UN Yang Jiechi said that the “Diaoyu Islands have been an integral part of China’s territory since ancient times . . . . Japan seized these islands in 1895 at the end of the Sino-Japanese War and forced [China] to sign an unequal treaty . . . Japan stole Diaoyu Islands from China”.

The emotions and symbolic value of the disputed territories make the issues ‘indivisible’ and therefore negotiation almost impossible. For China and Korea, these disputes are also an integral part of the history of Japanese colonialism and imperialism, and the resolution of them part and parcel of the ‘correct’ understanding of the past.

There is a vicious cycle at work here. Tensions over the disputed territories evoke the negative sentiments about Japan in China and Korea, leading to the rise of fervent nationalism against Japan in China and Korea. In turn anti-Japanese sentiments and demonstrations in China and Korea make ordinary Japanese feel that Japan should strongly resist foreign pressure (gai atsu). These sentiments strengthen the political power of Japanese right-wing groups, who become more vociferous not only about the territorial disputes but also about other historical issues such as the history textbook issue, Yasukuni Shrine, the so-called ‘comfort women’ issue, and the Nanjing massacre. Such actions by the Japanese right-wing groups feed back into the negative sentiments about Japan among Chinese and Koreans, and so on and so forth.

All three governments would like to manage the disputes, meaning that the situation is unlikely to escalate into armed conflict. However, there is still a greater potential for conflict due to increased surveillance and patrol activities conducted by all three governments in and near the disputed islands and waters. It is also extremely unlikely that the countries will seek to resolve the disputes in the foreseeable future. Thus the focus should not be on the resolution of the disputes for the time being, but on creating the right political conditions under which tensions could be defused and the possibility of resolution could be contemplated. Here, the resolution of the so-called ‘history problem’ (lishi wenti or rekishi mondai) is critical. Both the Chinese and Korean governments have repeatedly said that the ‘correct’ understanding of the past is the fundamental basis upon which to build political relations with Japan.

This is a point not very well-understood in Japan. Without achieving a common or acceptable understanding of the past, especially Japan’s aggression and colonialism in China and Korea, political relations and cooperation are unlikely to advance much. In addition, the Chinese government should realise that domestic anti-Japanese demonstrations do nothing to help its international image as a peacefully rising power. If anything, they only worsen the ‘China threat’ perception overseas.

For the Korean government, it should think more openly and creatively to find ways to deal with the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute with Japan. While Koreans have long complained about the power politics nature of interstate relations – describing Korea as a small shrimp caught in a struggle between two gigantic whales – its policy and practices are only reproducing the same realpolitik system that it is complaining about.

The Japanese government, for its part, needs to openly and unequivocally acknowledge its past wrongdoings, and should distance itself from the growing right-wing movement. Of course, this is easier said than done. As a result, the future situation regarding the disputes will not be much different from what we have witnessed thus far.

Dr Yongwook Ryu is a research fellow at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His research interests include international relations theory; Korea, Japan, China and ASEAN; East Asian international relations; identity politics; and regionalisation.

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