Nationalist Rhetoric Fanning Escalation of East Asia Territorial Disputes

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By Edward J. Shultz

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Oct. 16, 2012)

The recent eruption of protests throughout the Muslim world points once again to the stability of our globe being threatened by people with the intransigence of fundamentalists. It was fundamentalists in the United States who produced a reprehensible video vilifying the Islamic faith, and it was fundamentalists throughout the world who took to the streets to protest this affront to their faith and culture. In East Asia we are witnessing a somewhat similar escalation of tensions as fundamentalists in China, Korea and Japan push these three countries down an increasingly volatile path leading to growing animosities. And regrettably this is a verbal slugfest among U.S. allies and friends.

Most explosive is the Senkoku/Daioyu dispute between Japan and China as both sides — for economic and political reasons — have recently inflamed the question of ownership over these islets. Equally significant is the Tokdo/Takeshima dispute that Japan and Korea have been sparring over for several decades. Each of these disputes is inflamed by modern-day nationalists, upcoming political transitions and unresolved issues resulting from World War II.

All three countries — Japan, China and Korea — appeal to nationalism, showing no compromise to challenges to national territory. This is the fundamentalists' call to arms. In Japan particularly, those on the right show a reverence for the Yasukuni Shrine, revealing no repentance for Japanese aggression during World War II. Koreans, in general, maintain a hard line and refuse to negotiate the future of Tokdo, certain of the validity of their historical claims. The Chinese, like the Koreans, with still-strong memories of the atrocities of World War II, likewise uncompromisingly defend any and all alleged threats to Chinese sovereignty.

The rhetoric of nationalism is only heightened by upcoming political transitions. Japan's Prime Minister Noda is desperately trying to build up lagging support for himself and his allies, the Democratic Party, by standing firm on the issue of Tokdo. In upcoming elections that may come in months, he hopes to build support for his anemic government by maintaining a hard line over affronts to Japanese sovereignty in both Tokdo and Diaoyu.

In Korea, the soon-to-be-replaced President Myongbak Lee is seeking to build a following for his New Frontier Party in the upcoming December elections and secure his own legacy in history.

In China, as it too goes through a change in its leadership, and as the Communist Party also deals with a growing economic slowdown, what better way to deflect attention away from domestic problems than by focusing on possible challenges to Chinese territory?

The United States cannot escape responsibility in this sorry state of affairs. World War II ended with control over offshore islands like Tokdo and Diaoyu unresolved. When confronted with Communist advances in China and Korea in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States desperately looked for allies, and ironically Japan emerged as the sought-after partner. When such important treaties such as the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 were signed, issues of sovereignty over Tokdo and Diaoyu were ignored.

If one were to turn the clock back to the 1860s, before Japan started its expansionist policies, these little-known islets were loosely under the jurisdiction of Qing China and Choson Korea. As Japanese imperialism spread in the late 19th and early 20th century, these islands fell under Japanese control, and, as noted above, the United States never cared to resolve issues of sovereignty after World War II ended.

Now fundamentalists have made the question of control into an ugly confrontation, pitting friend against friend. Where the United States has failed, it is time to turn these issues over to the United Nations in order to defuse the escalating tensions. Through a purposeful intervention, dialogue can replace rhetoric, giving room for justice to prevail. The United States stepped away from exerting leadership 60 years ago, but it is not too late for action to take the future away from fundamentalists.

Edward “Ned” Shultz is dean of the University of Hawai’i’s School of Pacific and Asian Studies and president of the East-West Center's alumni association.