When faced with domestic worries, politicians often resort to foreign diversions – a simple axiom that is highly useful in assessing the increasingly tense sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas.
Although China is involved in the most wide-ranging and intense disputes, the most tragic is that between South Korea and Japan, given that both countries are democracies with almost identical strategic interests.
On August 10, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the island of Takeshima (called Dokdo in Korean), which has been the subject of a territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea for 60 years.
During a lecture at the Korea National University of Education four days later, he stoked tensions further, saying of the Emperor of Japan’s proposed visit: “If he wants to come, he should apologise first for the past.”
Despite his numerous achievements as president, Lee is trumpeting his nationalist/anti-Japanese credentials in the waning days of his term, which ends in February 2013. Indeed, so strident has he become that he refused to accept a message from Japan’s prime minister about his island visit.
Lee’s hyper-patriotism is new. Less than two months ago, he reached an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan – a deal that was subsequently abandoned, owing to fears that the opposition would attack his party’s presidential candidate as subservient to Japan.
Lee’s recent behaviour may also reflect his fear that he could suffer a fate similar to that of past South Korean presidents. Some have been assassinated, one committed suicide, and others were arrested and condemned to death after stepping down. Lee may have interpreted his brother’s arrest in July for accepting bribes as a prelude to such a fate.
Dispute over Takeshima
Attempting to mitigate future domestic political damage by undermining the dynamics of the relationship between South Korea and Japan – and both countries’ relationship with the United States – is unwise. Given North Korea’s continued potential for military mischief and the fluid state of security in Asia in the wake of China’s rise, such tactics could have serious, if unintended, consequences.
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The origins of the dispute over Takeshima lie in the period immediately before the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951, formally ending World War II in the Pacific. The treaty demarcated territory, including Takeshima.
But South Korea’s then-president, Syngman Rhee, in violation of the treaty and international law, instituted the “Syngman Rhee Line” to demarcate an expansive area, including Takeshima, within which South Korea unilaterally claimed fishery jurisdiction.
Since then, South Korea has used the issue as a means of boosting national prestige – and, aware that its sovereignty claims are legally dubious, has refused to allow the International Court of Justice to adjudicate.
More ominous, however, is the sovereignty dispute between Japan and China. Here, history has a story to tell as well. Japan’s government officially incorporated the Senkaku Islands into Japanese national territory in 1895. Since then, the islands have consistently been held to be Japanese.
Indeed, at one point there was a dried bonito factory in operation, and more than 200 residents on Uotsuri, the largest of the islands (roughly the size of New York City’s Central Park). At WWII’s end, in accordance with Article 3 of the Treaty of San Francisco, the islands were placed under United States control, but reverted to Japan in 1972, as part of the agreement that returned to it administration of Okinawa.
Until this point, neither China nor Taiwan expressed objections. In the Chinese World Atlas published under Mao Zedong in 1960, the Senkaku Islands were treated as part of Okinawa. And, although circumstances changed in 1968, when a survey by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific revealed the seas around the islands to contain an abundance of resources, the periodic tensions that arose were manageable.
That dynamic was altered when the Democratic Party of Japan came to power three years ago. The DPJ’s feckless dithering over whether to renew the US Marines’ lease on a base on Okinawa signalled to the world – and to China, in particular – that the party did not value the US alliance and America’s security guarantee as highly as previous governments did.
Domestic tension in China
As a result, China has since been testing Japan’s resolve and America’s assurances, though US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent and resolute affirmation of her country’s commitment to Japan’s security should put an end to any suspicion in that regard.
Meanwhile, domestic tension in China – particularly the scandal surrounding the purge of former Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai and the country’s economic slowdown – has probably prompted the government to play the nationalist card more forcefully than usual. The Party’s upcoming Congress to anoint the country’s new leadership for the next decade adds to its desire to manipulate public emotion.
But the nationalist genie, once released, is not easily controlled. Some anti-Japanese demonstrations – which featured rioting, looting, and the destruction of Japanese businesses – mutated into anti-government protests.
By allowing social tensions to mount to such a degree, the Chinese government may also be partly responsible for the recent rampage among thousands of workers at the Foxconn plant (where components for Apple iPods and iPads are made) in Taiyuan.
This December, South Korea will elect a new president. Japan is likely to hold fresh elections soon as well. The governments that emerge should use their popular mandates to forge a new form of cooperation that can transcend an embittered past.
What France and Germany achieved in the 1950s can serve as an example. By forging shared sovereignty over issues vital to national security – namely, coal and steel – visionary leaders in both countries laid the foundation for European peace and security, while overcoming a long history of antagonism.
In the face of China’s rise and maritime ambitions, East Asia’s two great democracies must seek to do no less. If they succeed, South Korea and Japan would establish a precedent that offers the best path to resolving the great sovereignty questions that are now destabilising Asia.
Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former Minister of Defence and National Security Adviser, is a former chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party, and currently an opposition leader in the Diet.
A version of this article previously appeared on Project Syndicate.