Recently, tensions between countries over numerous islands throughout East Asia have been rising. Of particular note are the heated disputes between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands and between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. At its core, as the New York Times notes (see two links above), the timing of these clashes can be traced back primarily to domestic politics, specifically upcoming elections or significant leadership transitions.
The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands dispute has its roots back in the post-World War II settlement and the maritime boundary that the U.S. established between Korean and Japanese claims. On one hand, South Korea (and, in fact, North Korea as well) argue that the islands have historically belonged to them and that the omission of any mention of the islands in the Treaty of San Francisco was made in error. Japan, on the other hand, points to the islands that they explicitly lost control over in the treaty–and to the fact that this particular set of islands was not included–as evidence that they should retain control.
The increased tension appears to be an attempt by Lee Myung-bak, the president of South Korea, to solidify his credentials among the nationalists, especially after the nearly solidified South Korean-Japanese security agreement was put on hold. As I have noted on this blog, opposition leaders used that as an opportunity to paint Mr. Lee as “pro-Japanese,” a particularly damning term for a Korean politician, laden with lots of historical baggage. Thus, it only makes sense that Mr. Lee would use this as an opportunity to counter critiques being leveled by other South Korean political leaders.
This is not to say that there isn’t a national security argument to be made here. In fact, Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has framed it in just those terms. But while this may be a possibility, from a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t seem particularly credible given the relative lack of value of the islands militarily. Namely, the islands are too small and difficult to employ as, say, a base or garrison (though, interestingly, Kimie Hara argues that the U.S. viewed the islands as having strategic value, which is why they were kept under Japanese control, in case South Korea fell to the communists). A resources argument seems more credible but still unsatisfactory. The islands provide valuable fishing rights as well as oil and gas reserves, which, in turn, provide each side an incentive to maintain control over the islands. However, the presence of resources cannot explain why we are seeing tensions rising now, since there have been no new discoveries of resources or new pressures for access to those resources.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute goes back even further; to perhaps the Meiji era, when Japan established control over Okinawa and its leaders debated over whether further expansion into disputed islands should occur. Following the first Sino-Japanese war, the Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede control over these islands to Japan. However, the Treaty of San Francisco again left the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in an unclear position, with Japan, the PRC and the ROC all laying claim.
Both Japan and China are facing impeding changes to their domestic politics. From this alone, we should expect to find that both Japan and China would be stepping up nationalist rhetoric in order to strengthen their positions domestically. But beyond the incentives to ratchet up tensions to appeal to domestic factions or groups, there is the broader geopolitical landscape to take into consideration: in particular, Japan’s fears about the rise of China. Of course, Japan is not the only state to become concerned about China’s increased power (the Philippines and Vietnam for instance have also been in disputes with China over islands that each side claims control over), and one reading of the tea leaves, as it were, could indicate that the U.S. and other states have started aligning together for the purpose of containing China. But these pressures are particularly acute for Japan. Thanks partly to China’s close geographic proximity and partly to the historical animosity between the two, the Japanese are especially fearful of what China’s rise might entail.
It is this fear that has led some in Japan to push back against China’s growing influence. There are some concerned that such a row might end up culminating in a confrontation and perhaps even a war that would draw the U.S. in as well. While I think this is probably going a bit too far, I do not find it unreasonable to say that the dispute between Japan and China could be a contributing factor to a crisis or war if tensions between the parties continue to rise. But in and of themselves, the islands are not a salient enough issue to lead a drive to war. Therefore, while we should clearly pay attention to these events, understanding the broader context that they are happening in is just as, if not more, important.