Tensions between the three core Northeast Asian countries have erupted again. And this time, the row is a manifestation of shifting power balances in the region.
The countries caught in the squabbles – China, Japan and Korea – will face leadership contests and transition this year, creating an uncertainty overhanging the fates of politicians.
Domestic politics, as such, will necessarily complicate diplomatic manoeuvers. This does not bode well for a region afflicted with animosity and troubled history.
The proximate cause
The trigger is a long-standing dispute over a group of islands which is known as Diaoyu Islands in China and Senkaku Islands in Japan. These uninhabited isles are close to strategic shipping lanes, offering rich fishing grounds and potentially contain oil deposits.
Taiwan, which also claims the Senkakus, calls it as Tiaoyutai Islands. The five islands and their accompanying rocky outcrops are around 100 miles north of Japan’s Ishigaki Island and 116 miles northeast of Taiwan.
The US occupied the islands from 1945 to 1972 and both China and Japan indicated their sovereignty claims with respect to the islands to the United Nations Security Council at the time of the US transfer of its administrative powers to Japan. Now, sovereignty over the islands would give the owner exclusive oil, mineral and fishing rights in surrounding waters.
Although the US does not have an official position on the merits of the competing sovereignty claims, the islands are included within the US Japan Security Treaty, which means that defence of the islands by Japan may compel support from the US military.
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On the 60th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, on August 15, a group of Hong Kong activists landed on the biggest island, Uotsuri, as part of China’s public relations campaign for ownership. The Japanese government detained them. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry wrote on its website, demanding the release and safety of the activists, and calling it an “unlawful detention”.
Soon after the Chinese landed, Japanese right-wing nationalists responded in a quid pro quo measure. They swam ashore and waved the Nippon flag on one of the islands. This sparked off protests across China. The protesters took to the streets, attacking Japanese-made cars and Japanese-owned businesses.
The potential economic benefits may well impel the countries to stake their claim on a bunch of islets and take turns to rebuke one another in nationalistic rhetoric; however, the historical antagonisms fuelled by the uncertainties of top-level political changes, is what really drives the conflict this time.
It was a deliberate attempt on the Chinese’s part to express their discontentment with Japan’s claim over the islands on an emotionally charged day. Both China and Japan’s perspectives of the Second World War divaricate sharply.
School textbooks in Japan make only brief references to war crimes, while Chinese textbooks include more lurid details of the atrocities. Further, Japanese ministers’ visit to the Yasukuni shrine never fails to provoke her neighbours. The Yasukuni shrine honours Japanese war dead, including 14 top war criminals, including the former prime minister, General Hideki Tojo.
Several cabinet ministers pay their respects at the shrine every year and former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has made six visits to Yasukuni since he took office in 2001. In the aftermath of one of the highly controversial visits, China cancelled their scheduled meeting with the Japanese foreign minister.
As a result of the disagreements on the shared history, nationalist sentiments are easily stoked. Both governments have always played on its accessibility, showcasing their patriotic colours, to gain support from the people.
Political changes across the region have induced the governments to weigh in more strongly in the contest for the islets. Just when the leadership transition is about to commence, the Chinese political elites are facing challenges to its absolute position.
As the Bo Xilai scandal revealed fissures within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they are anxious for a closure to the incident. Gu Kailai was swiftly charged for Neil Heywood’s murder, while ousted politician Bo Xilai was only briefly mentioned during the trials.
In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda suffers from below 30 per cent approval rating. Noda also comes under pressure to hold another election soon; a deal he made in exchange to get his tax-cut bill passed in parliament.
South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak does not have it better. With elections looming, his approval ratings are at rock bottom, partly due to a series of corruption scandals, convicting a few of his closest aides and his brother.
The governments hence see it necessary to take this opportunity to utilise nationalist passions to prevent being perceived as weak in the eyes of the electorate. In Lee’s case, his visit to Takeshima/Dokdo Islands, which is also contested by Japan, have given some life to his approval ratings as it crept up 6 per cent.
However, with relations more tense than ever, countries are in a tenuous situation where possible severe foreign policy repercussions could occur if provocative behaviour calculated to influence domestic politics takes precedence over diplomatic gestures.
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Japan has had already issued its sternest admonishment – criticising Lee’s visit as an “illegal landing” and it will be taking the dispute to the International Court of Justice.
Japan is undoubtedly flexing its muscle – a signal that China’s military expansion and its assertive positioning in Asia has ruffled the country.
China is expanding its military capabilities, albeit hushed up on its scale. According to recent news reports, they are developing warheads to place on its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).
Beijing is also involved in a long-standing territorial dispute with Vietnam and Philippines in the South China Sea over the Spratly, Paracel Islands and the Scarborough Shoal.
The recent flare-up proved disquieting as it beset the formation of ASEAN’s final communiqué – a first since its inception – as the 10 member countries could not agree on the wordings. Philippines and Vietnam demanded the details of Scarborough standoff to be included in their joint statement to which Cambodia, an ally of China, refused.
Seeing how China is unrelenting in staking its claim on the disputed territories, in an unprecedented and controversial move, Japan plans to buy the Senkaku Islands for $25 million. The sale could potentially strengthen Japan’s hold over it and perhaps even bring it under Japan’s control within next month.
It is unlikely Japan will relinquish its pacifist attitude for a confrontation with China. But Hideshi Takesada, a Japanese professor of Asian Studies at Yonsei University of South Korea, said it is not impossible.
In an interview with AFP, Takesada, former researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Defence Studies, said: “In practical terms, it is possible for the Japanese government to order the deployment of the Maritime Self-Defence Force.”
For Tokyo, he says, much as for Beijing, the islands are a red line that it is ultimately not willing to allow anyone to cross.
“If Japan lost Senkaku, it would lose a significant portion of its frontline defence,” he added. “Moreover, a weak-kneed response will lead to similar results in other fields.”
Northeast Asia going forward
These boiling tensions and hawkish ripostes are signs that power balances are shifting and countries are struggling to retain their conspicuity in the region. As it is, there is a lack of unity among the members of Northeast Asia.
The faltering ties among the countries trouble the region’s security. It will undermine the US’ efforts in enlisting its allies’ help to counter Beijing’s rise. The change in dynamics in turn provides China an opportunity to form new strategic affiliations.
Whether a new regional order will be formed eventually remains to be seen. But with certainty, more tempered responses and diplomatic gestures are needed during these times fraught with political ambiguities.
Tng Ying Hui is a graduate student in International Studies at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, a blogger and journalist.