While most geopolitical fears are focused on the Middle East, it would be wise to also keep an eye on the Far East. There are no less than five major territorial disputes agitating the area, two of which have heated up in recent weeks, and all of which present potential headaches for the United States.
The first concerns the fabulous Senkaku Islands. Tiny and virtually uninhabitable, the little specks northeast of Taiwan are anchored in a large stretch of water believed to be rich in natural gas deposits. Contested over by Japan and both Chinas, the conflict was dormant until the United States surrendered control of the region to Japan in 1972. The Japanese government leased their claims to a private company, which they then forbade from developing the islands. But things have heated up since the emperor’s men recently bought those claims back. On the Chinese mainland, there has been rioting in major cities; Japan responded by closing down its factories there. The rhetoric is heated and the conflict is likely to escalate, despite the economic woes both sides will face.
Japan is also at loggerheads with South Korea over another obscure group of islands, in this case the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan. Inhabited by two South Korean fishermen, in August the islands were treated to a visit by South Korean president Lee Myung-bak. In response, Japan withdrew her ambassador and attempted an appeal to the International Court of Justice, which Seoul torpedoed. There were the requisite riots and protests in both countries, and North Korea declared her support for her southern neighbor despite ideological differences.
Japan is also feuding with Russia over the Southern Kurils. Japan maintains it did not surrender control after World War II as it did with the rest of the chain. After the Soviet Union fell, there was speculation that Russia might sell the disputed islands to Japan. Not only didn’t this happen, but in February of 2011, Moscow reinforced them. Internal political need in either country could always reignite tensions over these islands.
Mercifully, Japan is not involved in conflicts over two other island groups that are thought to sit atop vast energy resources: the Paracel (both Chinas and Vietnam are feuding) and Spratly (those players plus the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei).
One might well wonder why there is much jumping up and down over small bits of real estate with relatively little to justify the potential costs in wresting control of them. The reason, in a word, is identity. All the players have to prove to their peoples and themselves that they are not betraying their pasts.
For Japan, which never went through any sort of “de-Nazification,” there is currently a surge of nationalism that is not restricted to its traditional adherents. In addition to maintaining traditional Imperial ceremonies and Shinto’s role in public life (including government officials at rites in controversial shrines such as Yasukuni and Meiji), this movement calls for revision or denial in the way that school curricula and society view such episodes as the Rape of Nanking and the comfort women. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda must somehow placate these views, especially in light of the upcoming election he faces. But they drive the Chinese and Koreans crazy.
The Chinese have a lot over which to be driven crazy, and the dispute with Japan serves to let off a great deal of steam over internal problems. On the mainland, October will see enormous changes as seven of the nine politburo members step down at the 18th Party Congress; this will be mirrored by alteration in presidency and premiership at the National People’s Congress the following March. Traditionally, such changeover periods have been unstable. In Taiwan the Kuomintang, back in power after eight years in the wilderness, is anxious to retain both its Chinese roots and Taiwanese relevance. Both Chinas tacitly cooperate in upholding mutually agreed upon territorial boundaries. In either case, Chinese nationalism must be served, for very different reasons. Since Japanese apologies over wartime misdeeds are not forthcoming, saber-rattling over the islands will do.
The Koreas face similar identity issues to China, exacerbated by both North Korea’s basket-case nature and the memory of outright colonial status under Japan. MacArthur probably did South Korea no favors by not reviving the country’s monarchy in 1947, though it has come into a strange sort of half-life via palace restorations and the revival of military and religious rituals. As with China, internal divisions can be assuaged by trying to twist the Japanese tail. North Korea may also feel the need to reassert its independence in the face of mainland China’s threats over Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. The North’s creaky economy may stimulate either revolution or conflict with South Korea to stem off that possibility. But in the meantime joining Seoul in its struggle for the islets gives a veneer of pan-Korean unity and deflects Japan’s annoyance over the kidnappings.
Despite their shared cultural and religious background, with its heavy Buddhist influence and mutual reverence of the Confucian scholar-gentleman, the three peoples’ interaction is reminiscent of Europe. China, a major continental power with an ancient culture its neighbors revere and more recent political weaknesses they despise, plays the role of France. Japan, an island empire obsessed with trade, is Britain. Korea, alternately conquered or influenced by the other two, is Ireland. Whereas the two World Wars obliterated nationalism’s fires in Western Europe, in Northeast Asia they burn as hotly as those of Europe did in 1914. A wrong step by someone and an obscure little island may one day acquire as much notoriety as a certain dumpy provincial town in Bosnia.
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