Blame geopolitical jostling for island rows

Hooman Peimani points to rise of China and Korea, relative to Japan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 2:22am

The Asia-Pacific region is no stranger to territorial disputes. In fact, the ownership of certain islands in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan have been disputed for decades. So the war of words between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and its accompanying limited show of naval force - and a similar row pitting South Korea against Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands - have their roots in other issues.

Undoubtedly, ownership disputes are sensitive issues for all parties. Thus, certain developments may well have contributed to the recent escalations, including the attempts by Chinese and Japanese nationalists to land on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and Tokyo's decision to buy the islands from a private owner.

Nevertheless, the fast-spreading anti-Japanese sentiment in China and South Korea suggests deep-rooted reasons for the disputes and indicates a changing geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific region.

For over a century, political, economic and military supremacy over the region has been the preoccupation of its two major powers, Japan and the US. In the absence of a serious challenger, the two have gone through major military conflicts to establish their dominant position.

Japan's defeat in the second world war ended its claim to a pre-eminent position in the region, leaving the US as the unrivalled power. Japan recognised the new geopolitical structure secured by American military might and financed by US economic power. Tokyo opted to reconstruct the devastated nation; to regain and expand its economic power, an alliance with Washington was seen as a necessary evil, ensuring security in the face of expanding Soviet power.

The need to secure its trade and supply sea routes has also justified its alliance with Washington, while serving its security interests as it confronts a regional military threat - North Korea - and a rising regional power - China - both of which hold historical grievances against Japan.

Thus, security and economic imperatives, prudence and strategic interests have all turned Japan into a pro-status-quo power seeking to maintain its influence and interests in the Asia-Pacific region in association with the dominant military power, the US.

China and Korea have a totally different view of the region. China's loss of political, economic and military power beginning two centuries ago placed it in an inferior position to both Western powers that were expanding their influence through their colonies, and to the only regional power, Japan. For most of this period, until the founding of the People's Republic, the country was subject to various humiliations not just by Western powers, but also by Japan.

Japan's decades-long colonisation of South Korea, that ended only with Japan's surrender in 1945, has left deep national wounds on the Korean Peninsula.

Ironically, South Korea and Japan ended up, respectively, rebuilding their countries and expanding their economies under the US security umbrella to emerge as major global economic powers.

Today, South Korea and China are strong economic powers, the former a regional power, the latter with superpower status. With the US declining economically and politically, due to the shift in economic power from the West to Asia, the two rising Asian powers no longer need to accept Japan's regional status. Their ongoing disputes with Japan mirror this new reality.

It is clear therefore that the escalation of the island disputes is the result of the repositioning of a rising regional power (South Korea) and a rising superpower (China) commensurate with their elevated status in a region long dominated by a superpower (the US) and an Asian power (Japan) which both are now suffering declining capabilities.

Dr Hooman Peimani is head of the Energy Security Division and a principal fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore