Why China, Japan, and S. Korea aren't backing down on island disputes

Fired up by increasingly nationalist politics at home, China, Japan, and S. Korea are reluctant to be seen as backing down on the issue of sovereignty.

Kyodo News/AP
This aerial photo shows Uotsuri Island, one of the islands of Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, in the East China Sea on Sept. 2.

The territorial disputes in Southeast Asia are becoming increasingly bitter between leading economic and military powers China, Japan, and South Korea.

At the center of the dispute between China and Japan are the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese, an uninhabited outcrop of rocks that lie in the middle of rich fishing grounds and potentially richer oil and gas deposits.

On Tuesday, Japan's national government signed a contract to buy the islands for 2.05 billion yen ($26 million) from the Japanese family who has been leasing them to the government. While in Japan this is seen as an attempt to head off a plan by Tokyo’s controversial nationalist Gov. Shintaro Ishihara to take control of the disputed isles, China reacted angrily and immediately dispatched patrol boats to the nearby waters, in a significant escalation to the standoff. 

Fired up by increasingly assertive publics and local politicians at home, all three country’s leaders – especially China and Japan – are reluctant to be perceived as backing down on this issue at the end of their premierships. Seen together, say analysts, they could spell greater trouble for the region. 

“These territorial disputes could destabilize the region and cause an arms race in Southeast Asia,” Hyun Dae Song of Korea’s Kookmin University said at a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Though the islands have been subject to claim and counterclaim for centuries, the current diplomatic row between Japan and China escalated after a Chinese fishing boat crashed into a Japan Coast Guard vessel there in 2010, resulting in the arrest of the Chinese captain. That set off a series of events, eventually leading to a Japanese governor’s proposal to buy the islands.

Mr. Ishihara, a right-wing populist infamous for inflammatory statements about China and Japan’s other neighbors, had raised 1.45 billion yen in donations to buy the islands, develop facilities on them, and explore for oil and gas in the surrounding ocean. Although this would have been far more provocative than the national government’s current plan, which is to do nothing with the islands, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the purchase.

End of their tenures

In addition to the fractious history between Japan and China, leaders involved in the decisionmaking process are coming to the end of their tenures and are facing pressure at home not to give an inch.

“Neither government can be seen to be weak-kneed,” says University of Tokyo’s Professor Akio Takahara.  

One of China’s concerns is whether a new government in Tokyo, likely to be in power within months, will honor any promises Japan makes now regarding what it intends to do with the islands.

Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, may be forced into an election as early as November, with his Democratic Party of Japan trailing badly in the polls. Meanwhile, China’s Hu Jintao will be replaced as leader at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, expected to take place in Beijing in October. Both risk significant blows to their pride and legacy, should they lose ground on sovereignty before they go.

“This is now a very serious and dangerous game of chicken between China and Japan,” says Zhu Jian Rong, a Chinese expert on East Asia relations, speaking in Tokyo on Tuesday. “It’s like a war situation, where neither side can show any weakness or compromise.”

Simple economics to the rescue?

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s term ends soon, too, and an election set for Dec. 19 appears to be behind the flaring up of another of Japan’s current island disputes, that of Takeshima, known as Dokdo in Korean.

Mr. Lee visited the islands in August, the first Korean leader to do so, and then demanded the Japanese emperor apologize for his country’s wartime aggression before he be allowed to visit Korea again. The visit and Lee’s pronouncement about the emperor were seen as provocative by Tokyo, raising tensions after a period of warming relations between the two countries. Some analysts have suggested that Lee’s actions are motivated by a desire to be seen as standing up to Japan, as his approval ratings had dropped below 20 percent. Lee apparently got a 5 percent approval bump after the visit, according to polls.

“Any claim by Japan toward the Dokdo islands is seen like an invasion and reminds Koreans of Japanese colonial rule,’ said Professor Hyun.

The escalating standoff prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to hold talks with both sides on the final day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in the Russian port of Vladivostok on Sunday, in an attempt to cool tensions between America’s two closest allies in the region.

In the end, simple economics may prevent the disputes between the three neighbors from boiling over into more serious conflicts.

“The trade between China, South Korea, and Japan is now on a massive scale,” says Professor Zhu. “China is now Japan’s biggest trading partner, and it is the economic consequences of any military action that is likely to stop either side using force first.”

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