Asian boundaries destabilize region

The three-nation claim to a tiny island chain illustrates the growing tensions in Asia.

Bibi netanyahu (photo credit: JPost Staff)
Bibi netanyahu
(photo credit: JPost Staff)
Sovereignty is as much an emotional concept as it is a legal concept. Lines on a map can also cut across the human heart. Or at least, at times, it can feel as if they do.
This week, four eager Japanese citizens went to great trouble and personal risk to make an unauthorized visit to Uotsuri, part of the remote Senkaki Islands.These small islands are uninhabited but still subject to a long-standing and bitter dispute over their sovereignty.
Tokyo bans its citizens from visiting the islands, in an attempt to maintain a civil diplomatic tone with their giant neighbor, China. However, the four intrepid day-trippers were able to convince members of the Japanese Coast Guard, who came across their fishing boat as they approached Uotsuri, that they were simply honest fishermen plying their humble trade.
Known as Diaoyu to the Chinese, a less fortunate group of ardent activists sailing from Hong Kong on the same day to the disputed islands were successfully turned back by Hong Kong patrol boats. Beijing also prohibits its citizens from traveling to these islands.
Given the tensions in the region in recent years, and the symbolism associated with conceding territory to an “enemy,” these islands could potentially be the spark that sets the China Sea alight, should one of the claimant countries attempt to use military force to further substantiate its historical and cultural claims.
Unsurprisingly, some believe that large oil and natural gas deposits are buried just under the Senkaki islands. And at a time when fish stocks have been depleted in many traditional fishing areas, sovereignty over the islands conveniently brings with it a substantial increase in fishing rights.
When the four Japanese landed their rubber dingy on Uotsuri, they rubbed salt in an open wound that continues to fester. Unfortunately, just a few days earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda agreed with Beijing to make a concerted effort to reduce maritime tensions between their two countries.
Are these tiny bits of rock Japanese or Chinese? And if they belong to China, then to which “China” do they belong?
When news of the unauthorized landing was first made public, both China and Taiwan issued immediate and furious protests, making clear their own sovereignty over the Senkaki Islands. The fact that there were two such protests lodged in the name of “China” itself reflects a much older dispute over sovereignty.
Taiwan, of course, claims to be the legitimate government of all of China, as the home of the retreating Republic of China army and government that was chased off the mainland by Mao’s People’s Liberation Army after 1949. The current Beijing government also claims to be the legitimate government of Taiwan, a Chinese province that previously spent fifty years as a possession of the Japanese Empire.
So clearly sovereignty is also a fluid and subjective concept!
Land borders are even more stressful than the lines of demarcation drawn across the open water. The demilitarized zone on the Korean peninsula gives witness to this perennial truth.
With the recent death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong il, tensions across the DMZ have understandably shot up. Chinese President Hu Jintao quickly sent his heartfelt congratulation to Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong un, as Beijing is keen to maintain the “traditional friendly cooperation” between China and North Korea. Chinese support is absolutely essential for the impoverished regime in Pyongyang, which continues to wrestle with widespread food and power shortages.
In reality, though, China backs its backward neighbor not for economic gains, but primarily to enjoy a buffer zone between it and US ally South Korea. Sharing a border with such a close friend of Washington would be diplomatically intolerable for Beijing.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak announced in his New Year’s Day speech that his country will stand firm against any aggression from Pyongyang. With the official mourning period of Kim Jong il now concluded, the rhetorical flourishes have resumed from both sets of Korean leaders.
Lee and his government have seen North Korea repeatedly attempt to provoke it into a rash reaction. To date, the South Korean have resisted these provocations, which have included blowing up ships and launching rockets, but 2012 is an election year, and approval ratings for Lee and his party have plummeted. The limited progress that had been previously made under the so-called Sunshine Policy, which increased interactions between the North and the South, is now a thing of the past.
As Kim Jong il continues to consolidate his grip on power, with Beijing’s clear and unqualified blessings, it seems as if little progress can be made now to defuse the tension on the Korean peninsula.
What sits behind each of these disputes over sovereignty in Asia? China.
As China continues to grow, both economically and in terms of international importance and prestige, Asia will become subject to more open, and potentially violent, conflicts over boundaries. Steps must be taken to facilitate the peaceful settlement of any disputes that arise over claims and counter-claims to draw (or re-draw) lines on the map in a particular way.
Inadequate or ineffective diplomatic solutions will simply open the door to jingoism and “self-help” remedies that will raise the temperature in Asia to boiling point.

The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.