Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Domestic Politics Fuels Northeast Asian Maritime Disputes

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Domestic Politics Fuels Northeast Asian Maritime Disputes

Article excerpt


Ongoing squabbles between Russia and Japan, South Korea and Japan, and China and Japan over small islands and rocks north of Japan and in the Japan and East China Seas have underlying commonalties." Nationalist feelings based on historical grievances and the belief that the disputed areas contain significant resources are the fundamental reasons behind these disputes. But they are all currently being fueled and manipulated by nationalist politicians for domestic political purposes. This makes the disputes far more dangerous than they should be. Any solution-or even an approach to a solution-must address this reality.

The S e nka ku/Dia oyu Islands Dispute

This dispute over five small uninhabitable rocks in the East China Sea [see map] dates back to the 1970s. More recently, it erupted into the news in June 1996, when China and Taiwan protested Japan's declaration of a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the features. The rocks are currently under Japanese control but China claims "inalienable" sovereignty over them. The eventual owner could claim some 11,700 square nautical miles of maritime space and continental shelf, as well as the resources therein.

The dispute came to a boil in September and October 1996 when a nationalist Japanese group erected a lighthouse on one of the rocks. Vehement anti-Japanese demonstrations subsequently broke out in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and ship-borne protesters eluded Japanese coast guard vessels to plant the flags of China and Taiwan on one of the features.

On 26 May 1997, a flotilla carrying Taiwan and Hong Kong activists attempted to land people on the islands as a challenge to Japan's claim of sole sovereignty over them. This time, however, Japanese coast guard vessels successfully prevented a landing. This provocative public display of Chinese national- ism was a predictable response to a well-publicized visit to the rocks earlier that month (May 6) by Japanese nationalists led by Shin Nishimura, a member of the opposition New Frontier Party.

The nationalists' landing embarrassed Japan's prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was planning to exchange visits with Chinese Premier Li Peng to mark the 25th anniversary of bilateral ties. JapanChina relations had just gotten back on track after having been disrupted by Japan's August 1995 freezing of aid and grants to China due to its having conducted a nuclear test, and the 1996 war of words over the rocks. Although Hashimoto condemned the unauthorized visit, China raised the stakes by warning that "The Daio-Yu matter will definitely affect the normal development of Sino-Japanese relations.""1 China also demanded that Japan prosecute the Japanese who visited the rocks. Despite this flare up, both governments managed to keep the issue from damaging their relations.

Then, on 5 September 1999, another landing was carried out by three members of the Japan \buth League, a Japanese nationalist group. Although this landing was principally an expression of nationalist sentiment, it was presented as a protest against an increased presence of Chinese survey vessels in the vicinity. In the aftermath of the landing, China again demanded that Japan punish the offenders and take measures to prevent future landings. Both governments feared that this incident would rekindle the domestically sensitive ownership issue in their countries and struggled successfully to contain it.

The Tok-Do/Takeshima Dispute

In 1996, a dispute over two barren rocks ("Tok-Do" in Korean, "Takeshima" in Japanese) occupied by South Korea in the Sea of Japan (East Sea in Korean) raised its ugly head. If used as base points, these rocks could allow claims to about 16,600 square nautical miles of sea and seabed and their associated resources. They have been in dispute since the liberation of Korea from Japanese domination, and have become an ongoing source of tension between the two countries. This time the issue threatened to disrupt already fragile South Korea-Japan relations and nearly led to the cancellation of a planned summit meeting. …

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