Islands are East Asia’s rage

Islands are all the rage in Northeast Asia. And rage is the word. The Hindustan Times has already received a letter from the Japanese Embassy complaining that there is no dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands. “It is evident that the Senkaku Islands are the territory of Japan…therefore, there does not exist any dispute over” the islands. I presume we will receive a similar note from the Chinese.

The South Koreans, not wanting to be left out, have sent a 300 plus page book outlining their knowledge and thus claim to Dodko, or Takeshima in Japanese, another few spits of rock in the seas of Northeast Asia. I presume the Japanese may send a note on that sometime soon.

I can remember one year, finding my table groaning under the weight of hefty Korean publications explaining why the Sea of Japan should actually be called the “Korean Sea” – the basis of this being that Dutch mariners dubbed it as such a few hundred years ago. Japanese diplomats threatened to send their matching documentation but I nipped that in the bud quickly.

The Senkaku/Diaoyutai (I’ll henceforth use the neutral English name for them: the Pinnacle Islands) dispute has been a recurring incident in Sino-Japanese relations. Last year, Chinese warplanes locked missiles on Japanese fighters before the latter peeled away. And in 2006, saw Hong Kong activists being chased away by Japanese patrol boats when the former tried to land on the islands. And this doesn’t even include the incidents involving the Taiwanese.

I won’t go into the legal claims of the two countries. What should be asked is why bilateral attempts by the two countries to settle this issue have gone so poorly. In 2006, the two countries were all aglow with agreements on mutual oil and gas exploration around the Pinnacles. By 2008 this was coming apart at the seams.

There is no love lost between Chinese and Japanese. Polls say their mutual dislike ratings are higher than those between Arabs and Israelis, let alone Indians and Pakistanis. But the island disputes go up and down quite dramatically. And confidence-building measures run aground on, well, the rocks very quickly.

The answer lies, as does so much of Asia’s security policy, in the domestic politics of the two countries. China is a past master at deliberately egging its people on about a foreign country if it helps legitimize the communist party. And Japan is easy meat when it comes to getting some stone-pelting to start with the Chines.

Tokyo is notably less cozy when a more right-wing nationalist prime minister comes to power, Junichiro Koizumi being a perfect example. But there is a fair degree of nationalism being bandied about in the Chinese system as well. Especially the past year as, it is suspected, Hu Jintao is sticking to the more aggressive foreign policy vision of the People’s Liberation Army as the question of who will be his successor becomes increasingly important.

Northeast Asian governments seem to like to raise a bit of steam over island disputes for domestic political reasons. They seem to assume that this can’t really get out of control given how barren and isolated these pieces of rock are. But if they aren’t playing with fire, they are messing around with kindling. China has in past had to crackdown on overly patriotic citizens whose actions were increasingly beyond those sanctioned by the party. Japanese prime ministers are nowadays a generally desperate lot and one can see why they would try anything that would extend their time in office to, say, 12 months.

Asians don’t fight any more these days, not after World War II and the closeness of their economies. That’s what we are told. But this willingness for all sides to arouse public opinion so easily is troubling. Particularly given the widening power gap between China and the rest. No war-war. However, arm-twisting and bully-bully stuff can’t be ruled out.

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