Asia must resist pull of nationalism

Kevin Rafferty fears the dangerous escalation of tensions over territorial rows in regional seas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 2:14am

The recent visits - or invasions - depending on your point of view, by small groups of hot-headed but well-organised nationalists to isolated rocky islands shows just how intractable are questions of territorial rights in the seas around China.

Televised pictures of a Chinese police car being overturned and bashed by mobs in Shenzhen puzzled my Japanese friends until they understood that it was a Japanese car and realised how serious the situation has become.

The ferocity of feelings on all sides makes solutions difficult and helps to put into perspective some of the high-flying academic suggestions for sorting out grander issues of how to ensure peace and prosperity in the wider ocean as China grows and flexes its muscles.

International-minded statesmen are required if the Asia-Pacific region is to continue its voyage to prosperity, but instead chauvinist hoodlums and pirates are ahoy. It should be a matter of concern and shame that Hong Kong has played a role in rousing some of the passions.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's visit to the disputed islands known as Takeshima to the Japanese and Dokdo to Korea, and successive landings on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, first by Chinese activists from Hong Kong and then by Japanese nationalists, demonstrate how old sores fester.

Both sets of islands were incorporated into imperial Japan by decree from Tokyo, in 1895 in the case of Senkaku/Diaoyu and 1905 for Takeshima/Dokdo. As Emeritus Professor Peter Drysdale of the Australian National University notes, neither territory "was decisively stripped from Japanese sovereignty at the San Francisco treaty conference of 1951, which legalised the post-war territorial settlement in the Far East".

Moreover, the Senkakus/Diaoyus pose an extra layer of problems because they were part of the territory of Okinawa controlled by the United States after the war. They were mapped out and returned to Japan as part of Okinawa when Washington turned over the territory to Japan in 1972.

On September 7, 2010, a Chinese trawler collided with Japanese coastguard vessels, or rammed them, according to the Japanese. After the incident, the US confirmed that the disputed islands are specifically covered by the Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security between the United States and Japan, which obliges the US to defend Japanese territory from third countries. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told her Japanese counterpart then, Seiji Maehara, that the US does not have a position regarding the sovereignty of the islands.

All the islands range between tiny and mere specks. Senkaku/Diaoyu are five islands and three rocks in the East China Sea, a mere seven square kilometres in area. China claims that they were called Diaoyu in a book dating back to 1403, and adopted in the imperial map of the Ming dynasty.

Takeshima/Dokdo are even smaller, two islets and numerous rocks in the Sea of Japan, with a combined area of less than 0.2 square kilometres. Then president Syngman Rhee deployed the South Korean coastguard to occupy the islets in 1952, and Seoul has been in contested possession ever since.

The usual rationale for the disputes is that the islands may be little more than rocks but they offer territorial claims to the seas around and their rich fish and oil and gas resources. You might think that grown-up rulers of mature 21st-century countries would be able to solve any such disputes with give and take and deals over potential mineral resources.

The real problem is that nationalists are in the ascendant everywhere. Korean commentators were surprised at what one called Lee Myung-bak's "stunt" to restore his flagging fortunes before he leaves office. But 80per cent of Koreans supported him.

Japan's government has been caught wrong-footed. Uichiro Niwa, Tokyo's ambassador to Beijing and the first envoy from the private sector, warned that attempts by Shintaro Ishihara, the maverick nationalist governor of Tokyo, to buy the Senkaku Islands from their private owners would cause a "grave crisis" in relations with China. He was right, but for his pains he is about to be sacked, labelled "pro China" by the liberal Asahi Shimbun.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda would like to buy the islands for the central government and try to keep the lid on the passions. But he has been too slow and his political position at home is weak.

It will not be easy to get the nationalist genies back in their bottles. It should be a matter of grave concern that the Hong Kong activists who planted a Chinese flag on the Diaoyus enjoy financial support from all the political heavyweights in the city, including Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. The central government may not welcome the popular passions released.

Japan has suggested that its dispute with Korea should go to the International Court of Justice, which Korea has refused. But if Tokyo is serious, it should offer all the disputed territories to the international court, including the northern islands disputed with Russia, along with practical proposals to share the resources of all of the islands and the surrounding oceans with neighbours.

That might encourage Beijing to be more constructive rather than just repeating exclusive claims to 80 per cent of the China seas. All the nations of the Asia-Pacific region should learn to swim together or they will surely sink.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator