Nationalist Sentiments Prompt New Territorial Wrangles in Asia

Patrick Goodenough | August 20, 2012 | 5:06am EDT
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Anti-Japan protesters march in China’s Sichuan province on Sunday Aug. 19, 2012, protesting the hoisting of Japanese flags on islands claimed by both countries. (AP Photo)

( – Sixty-seven years after World War II ended in the Pacific, nationalist sentiment is simmering in Northeast Asia, as longstanding disputes over resource-rich maritime territories stoke new frictions between former foes.

Foreign ministries have been firing off diplomatic protests, ambassadors are being recalled and international legal action has been threatened.

Tokyo and Beijing (as well as Taipei) are wrangling over islands – known as Senkaku in Japan, and Diaoyu in China – located about halfway between the Chinese mainland and Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa, and under disputed Japanese control since the late 19th century.

Tokyo and Seoul, meanwhile, have for decades disputed sovereignty over islets located roughly halfway between South Korea and Japan, known in the former as Dokdo and in the latter as Takeshima.

The Japan-South Korea dispute returned to the front burner with an unprecedented visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to Dokdo/Takeshima earlier this month, followed on Sunday by the unveiling of a stone monument there to commemorate the visit. Japanese rallied in Tokyo to protest the Korean actions.

Japanese protest in Tokyo on August 16 against South Korea’s claims to disputes islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and as Takeshima in Japan. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

The China-Japan dispute flared when Japanese coastguard vessels on August 15 – the anniversary of the end of World War II – forcibly prevented a Chinese ship carrying activists from reaching Senkaku/Diaoyu. Rather than press charges, Japan in a bid to defuse tensions quickly deported the activists.

Some Japanese lawmakers demanded that the government deploy troops to guard the isles against Chinese incursions, and a group of Japanese nationalists, angered by the stunt, then launched their own in response.

They moored boats off the islands Saturday and, despite being refused permission by Tokyo to make landfall, about 10 swam ashore and hoisted Japanese flags.

Chinese nationalists responded by holding anti-Japanese protests in at least six cities across the country, the official Xinhua news agency reported, burning Japanese flags and in some cases torching Japanese cars and damaging Japanese restaurants. Large public protests only take place in China with tacit government approval.

China and Taiwan both lodged formal protests Sunday with Japanese diplomats over the island visit.

“Japanese right wingers illegally violated China’s territorial sovereignty,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement. “The Japanese side should properly handle the current issue and avoid seriously damaging the overall situation of China-Japan relations.”

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Timothy Yang told Japan’s envoy the “provocative move” had raised regional tensions. Citing history, geography and international law, he said Taiwan’s claim to the islands was “indisputable.”

“The Diaoyu issue has become a focus of the nation,” Beijing’s Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in an editorial on Monday, suggesting that China will “suppress Japan’s control gradually until the trend reverses.”

“The contest over Diaoyu tests China’s will and wisdom, but the result ultimately depends on strength, and not only Japan’s strength,” it said. “The support the U.S. lends to Tokyo should also be taken into consideration. The national strength of China, as long as its growth continues, will become the bargaining chips that force Japan to back off.”

U.S. governments long refused to take sides in the Japan-China row over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, but in 2004 Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration, signaled a shift.

“There is no question for the United States that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty obligation extends to the Senkaku Islands,” Armitage told an international forum in Tokyo that February, referring to the 1960 treaty between the two countries.

“The islands are under administrative control of Japan. That is quite clear. The United States' security responsibilities would be involved. That’s black-and-white.”

In October 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated that stance.

“Let me say clearly again that the Senkakus fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” she said during a joint press conference with her Japanese counterpart in Hawaii. “This is part of the larger commitment that the United States has made to Japan’s security.”

Article 5 says in part, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”

At a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington last week, Armitage – a CSIS trustee – repeated the view that the Senkakus fall within bilateral treaty obligations, but also said that it was in the U.S. interest to “exert every ounce of our influence” to prevent confrontation.

Armitage was discussing a major new report authored by himself and Harvard political science professor Joseph Nye on the U.S.-Japan relationship. The report notes that China has expanded its declared “core interests” beyond the longstanding trio of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang to incorporate both the South China Sea and the Senkaku islands, and has increased its naval presence in the two maritime areas.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week of the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, “we expect the claimants to resolve the issue through peaceful means and any kinds of provocations are not helpful in that regard.”

On the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, Nuland said, “With regard to Japan and Korea, we want to see our two allies work this out together.”

‘History of militarist aggression’

Adding to tensions between Japan and its neighbors was a visit Wednesday by a Japanese cabinet minister to a controversial shrine for World War II dead.

Because a small number of war criminals are interred at the Yasukuni shrine, it is viewed by neighboring Asian countries as a symbol of Imperial Japan’s aggression, and past visits by government figures have drawn protests over the years.

But last week’s visit was the first to Yasukuni by a member of the government since the center-left Democratic Party came to power in 2009, ending the rule of a conservative party that had governed for most of the previous six decades.

Qin of the Chinese foreign ministry said in response to the shrine visit that the issue at stake was “whether Japan can correctly understand and deal with its history of militarist aggression and whether it can respect the feelings of people in China and other victimized countries in Asia.”

“The initiative lies in the hands of Japan itself about whether it can truly take history as a guide, draw a lesson from it and embrace the future together with other peoples in Asia,” he said.

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