Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trouble in the China Sea

Everyone would love to own an Island. In Japan’s case, the country is looking to own quite a few in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, and is having no luck in convincing its East Asian neighbors that it legally can. Recent disputes with South Korea, China, and Taiwan have been dominating Asian headlines as the already island-wealthy nation tries to assert its ownership over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands as well as the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The disputes are complex due to the fact that they are not only based on historical significance and regional relationships but also economic concerns. If they are not resolved, or at the very least if the countries involved do not stop inflaming tensions over them, then the East Asian arena could explode in a way the region has not seen since World War II.

Dokdo/Takeshima. Photo by 머찐만두.

The Dokdo (South Korea)/Takeshima (Japan) disagreement has playing out between Japan and South Korea for more than a century. Japan brutally occupied South Korea from 1910-1945, only to be forced out by the loss of World War II. While in control of the country Japanese soldiers raped South Korean women, using them as “comfort women” or prostitutes in military brothels. The comfort women clash tends to be the most frequently cited issue remaining from the occupation today. With Japanese withdrawal from South Korea in 1945 did not come Japanese recognition of South Korea’s sovereign rights to the islands, a fact that South Koreans claim illustrates their continued humiliation of South Korea. While having officially apologized for the occupation on several occasions, Koreans feel Japan is not sincere in their regret of the occupation years. South Koreans have created a national culture around Dokdo: they celebrate Dokdo day, learn about the islands in their schools, take regular trips or pilgrimages to the islands, and even have a textbook written about them.

Japan, for its part, wishes to turn the case over to international arbitration in the International Court of Justice. ICJ rules state that both parties must agree to such arbitration, and South Korea refuses to do this based on the fact that it would undermine their claim that they already own the islands. South Korean presidents historically have used the row to draw upon nationalist sentiments to boost their own popularity. It seems to be working: Pres. Lee Myung-bak visited the islands on 10 August, which resulted in the Japanese envoy in Seoul being temporarily withdrawn but his approval ratings to jump.

South Korean citizens are proud to flout the Japanese claim of ownership as well. Besides making trips to the islands, on the anniversary of the country’s liberation 40 swimmers swam to the islands. Another man rammed his truck into the gates of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in protest. Still others have cut off their fingers and sent them to Japanese officials. At the London Olympics, in a move that particularly raised tensions, a victorious South Korean soccer player held up a sign reading “Dokdo is our land” after the South Korean team beat Japan in the bronze medal match.

The posturing between the two nations has much more to do with historical nationalist issues than commercial gains, but there are valuable fishing areas in the surrounding seas. Gas reserves also may be located nearby, but the amount of gas they contain is unknown. South Korea controls the islands with a small force of National Guard troops stationed there. The dispute threatens relations between the two normally friendly countries, and jeopardizes their roles as bulwarks against an isolated North Korea.

Japan may decide that it is in its interests to drop its claim despite the domestic fallout such a move would entail. It is already involved in a much more acrimonious and potentially dangerous argument with China over the Diaoyu (South Korea)/Senkaku (China) islands that are located in the East China Sea and known to have what may prove to be a vast natural gas reserve nearby. The islands are also close to strategic shipping lanes and fishing areas. Currently a Japanese private citizen owns the islands, but according to Japan a deal has been met for the country to purchase them. China, however, claims that the ownership is illegitimate because the islands have always belonged to the Chinese. Japan officially controls them but China sent patrol ships to the islands today, which infuriated Japanese officials.

Diaoyu/Senkaku islets. Courtesy of National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

Domestically, the nations are being pushed to continue to fight for the islands. Uncertainty about China’s future makes the country anxious to control as many natural resources as it can. Upcoming changes in top leadership coupled with concerning forecasts that the economy’s growth is beginning to slow have led to high tensions within China. Japan’s current administration is quite weak domestically and as such strong nationalist elements have been able to gain a place in the forefront of politics. History also plays a role, as Japan occupied China in the 1930s and 1940s in the same brutal fashion it did South Korea. Taiwan further complicates the issue by asserting that it owns the islands.

Whoever ends up owning either set of islands will both win and lose. Domestically, whichever government comes out on top will see a temporary boost in popularity. Regionally and internationally, however, it is clear that the disputes are harming the nations’ ability to work together to weather the storm of economic downturn and avoid future conflicts that could turn violent. In this sea of disputes, it becomes impossible to identify the clear solution. Yet recalling the events of the early 20th century, the results of overzealous nationalism, and the human lives such a stance ended up costing is ample reason to find a compromise.


  1. Hey Vicky - Any ideas on what a compromise might look like in each case?

  2. Dokdo/Takeshima: Japan would need to put the long-term goal of regional stability over domestic results by withdrawing their demands over the islands, or South Korea could agree to arbitration which given international law they would win. Uti posseditis juris in these disputes is the overriding principle and since the land was South Korea's before occupation, it is still considered theirs now.

    Diaoyu/Senkaku: This one is a bit more tricky considering the natural gas reserves. It also should probably go to ICJ arbitration, which is hard to get either country to agree to given the fact that it could go either way based on the documentation the current owner has of his ownership of the islands.