Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The un-pacific Pacific:
Are maritime territorial disputes a powder keg in East Asian waters?

That's what Foreign Policy is asking, and it uses South Korean anger over Japan's continued claim on the Tokto Islets as the lead-in for the article:
When I was in Seoul a few weeks ago, the English-language news program Korea Today broadcast a strangely fascinating story about an "I Love Dokdo" contest at Taegu University. The idea was to see who could come up with the most inspiring tribute to the patch of microislands that has been the focus of a recurring and bitter dispute with Japan. It was strange to see young Koreans sitting on a spare, modernist television set, smiling, laughing and calmly celebrating a nationalist routine. Even odder was the fact that a Mexican exchange student named Emilio, along with a multinational team, won the contest. The goal of their performance, he said on Korea Today, was to "to express our love for Dokdo," in part by showing "the people who have protected Dokdo throughout history" and demonstrating "how beautiful" the islands are.

The contest was but one example of a surge of patriotic fervor in Korea after President Lee Myung-bak visited the islands this August. Stories about the issue fill the pages of daily newspapers. A Dokdo museum has opened in Seoul. During his August visit, Lee called the islands "a place worth staking our lives to defend." At the London Olympics, after the South Korean soccer team's victory over Japan, a Korean player rushed to the center of the field and held up a sign that read, "Dokdo is our territory."
I'm not so sure if there was a "surge" in patriotic fever, any more than a bubble shooting to the surface of a simmering pot is a surge. In fact, I think such silliness as the "I Love Tokto" contest simultaneously keep Tokto fever on the radar and under control. (But that doesn't mean I like it.)

Despite scenes like these landlubbers in the photo above, the likelihood of Korea actually getting into a shooting war in the waters around Tokto is nil unless Japanese boats (or Chinese, I guess) actually enter those Tokto territorial waters, so it is a bit disingenuous to use South Korea as the initial focus in an article that is highlighting how the rhetoric and behavior over such territorial disputes is so shrill and irrational that it could spark an actual conflict with real deaths.

But that's what they do:
Korea's attitude toward its territorial argument with Japan is symptomatic of the central emerging strategic reality in Asia: Much of the region is passing through a sort of geopolitical identity crisis, with key regional powers determined to find a more elaborate role for themselves. Globalization and interdependence are making people nostalgic for a more secure grasp on local cultures and traditions. The result is likely to be a period whose major risks of conflict will derive less from intentional calculations of national advantage than from a boiling clash of identity, pride, prestige, nationalism, and honor.

The conventional wisdom says that the main test of American strategy in Asia is the "rise of China." In fact, a far bigger challenge may be the growing dominance of these emotional identity issues, because traditional U.S. instruments of statecraft are simply not well suited to dealing with them. A year into the "pivot to Asia," Washington has designed a strategy for a 21st century, Soviet-style deterrence challenge: cold, calculating, pragmatic. Yet when dealing with the psycho-social dramas of countries clashing over pride and identity as much as interests, America's usual m.o. may not have the intended effect. Remarkably, the major strategic risk confronting the United States in Asia today may be its insistence on thinking "strategically."
I do agree with the sentiment here, but I don't think it's all that hard to figure out. The Japanese right has been fed a line about how cruelly and unfairly Imperial Japan was crushed and they believe that all these territories — Senkaku, Kuriles, and Tokto/Takeshima — are rightfully theirs and should be "defended" (even the ones they don't control) at all costs. That they have so much political influence makes the cost greater to Japanese companies and Japanese diplomacy, while eroding so much good will that Japan created following World War II. The FP article notes this:
On the Japanese side — which refers to the islands as Takeshima — the public is not as generally engaged, but the dispute has been fodder for right-wing groups, which have harped on the issue for years as a nationalist cause. More broadly, Japan is tentatively nosing into new debates about its own identity even as it is challenged by regional counterparts who believe it has yet to come fully to terms with its past -- and the likely candidates for prime minister in Japan's surging opposition party, such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are more hawkish nationalists than the current leaders. "Japan's beautiful seas and its territory are under threat," Abe has said, "and young people are having trouble finding hope in the future amid economic slump. I promise to protect Japan's land and sea, and the lives of the Japanese people, no matter what."
Meanwhile, China's contribution to the disastrous equation is that, in addition to having 1.3 billion mouths to feed, China has a tendency to distract its citizens (or at least try) from the failures and transgressions of the unelected Communist Party Leadership by turning other countries into temporary or long-term bogeymen. We've seen that with the United States, France, South Korea, and Japan. The FP chimes in on the Chinese as well:
The same sort of nationalistic, prideful identity-seeking has been unleashed in China. While Beijing's interests in the South China Sea are typically viewed as hard-nosed and measurable (resources, regional influence, naval bases), in fact the disputes are increasingly being posed by many domestic commentators as a test of China's ability to throw off centuries of "Weste
The thing is, though, that China's attempts to whip up the citizenry often lead to violent outbursts against the foreign targets. The American embassy in Beijing was practically destroyed by protesters following the US military's accidental killing of Chinese journalists in Serbia during the bombing of Belgrade, and after Europeans protested against China during the Olympic Torch relay in 2008, Chinese citizens took out their anger toward the French on Carrefour stores in several cities. Not much later, Chinese citizens ran riot in Seoul, attacking people who dared to protest the Olympic Torch there.

Let's not also forget the deadly confrontations that regularly occur between "Chinese fish pirates" and South Korean authorities (and even North Korean authorities), as well as China's southern neighbors.

It is for this reason that I do worry about China's behavior, and why I continue to be an enthusiastic supporter of the Pax Americana in the Western Pacific. But it's also for this reason that I think Japan needs to recognize that its insistence on clinging to territorial disputes from its Imperial past is not only costing far more than it will ever gain from them, but could also lead to a disastrous shooting war that envelops the whole region.

Yeah, China is the worse player here, but Tokyo (and Seoul and Taipei and Manila) are Washington's close allies, not Beijing.

At the very least, I'm glad that Foreign Policy is paying attention to this issue, because awareness of the disputes and the fact that emotion is a wild card in how these disputes flare up and play out in the future.

(And as an aside, this is why South Korea should not take the Tokto issue to the International Court of Justice.)



  1. The Carrefour protest had to do with the Western position on Tibet, not the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. If you really think the American government and military is so clumsy to bomb "off target", you are mistaken. The bombing was not an accident, but framed as one to negate responsibility. I was told that the Chinese were helping an opposing side during that whole situation and that the U.S. did not like it one bit. So it was done to effectively decimate the Chinese base of operations in Yugoslavia so that the other side would not have Chinese support.

    1. I changed the wording of the post to make it clearer that the Carrefour protests were about French (and other European) protests against China over Tibet and had nothing to do with the bombing of the Chinese embassy about a decade earlier.

      I'm not so sure that the bombing was deliberate. In fact, I'd be very angry if I knew for certain that it were. I think the Chinese may very well interpret it as a message like that, but war yields all kinds of unintended accidents, including many people dying from friendly fire, so I remain unconvinced (but convinceable).

  2. There are times when I really want to write and there are times when I simply mess up.


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