This appears to be the silly season in East Asia. Various uninhabitable or barely inhabitable islands are again the object of intense activity by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese political leaders and popular groups. The same trend is seen in the South China Sea where China and Southeast Asian countries that have claims to maritime territory frequently engage in tests of strength. Ostensibly, the driver of much of this activity is the belief that beneath the islands lay energy and mineral resources. Also, fishermen compete with each other for the bigger catch.
Politically, however, it is nationalism that is animating action and reaction. In the background in Northeast Asia are Chinese and Korean memories of Imperial Japan’s aggression and occupation before 1945 (which today’s Japanese resent because, in their mind, Japan has been a peaceful country ever since).
Symbolic action in the name of national honor would be silly if it weren’t rather dangerous. If Chinese citizens from Hong Kong land on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which both China and Japan claim but Japan controls, it fires nationalistic feeling in China and spurs popular demands that the Beijing government “do something” to protect Chinese interests. If South Korea’s president goes to islands that Japan and Korea claim but Korea controls, it provokes public demands that the Tokyo government “do something.” None of the governments concerned are very good at crisis management or calming domestic nationalism.
What to do? The chance that the countries concerned might resolve their conflicting territorial claims in the foreseeable future is virtually nil. Optimally, they might work out arrangements that permit joint development of natural resources on an equitable basis, while setting aside the thorny question of who owns what. But that is impossible in the current political environment, which fuels maritime tests of will – by navies, maritime agencies, and private groups.
In order to prevent small incidents from spinning badly out of control, all of the parties, in their own interests, should together work out codes of conduct to regulate their interaction in sensitive areas. Such rules of the road may permit some cooling off that might in turn allow countries to act on the basis of shared economic interests rather than divisive and emotional disputes.
What is the proper United States role? Washington has assiduously – and correctly – stayed out of the territorial disputes. It has properly placed primary emphasis on shaping a maritime order that will reduce the possibility of conflict and tension. By and large, it has stood for the creation of and adherence to rules and norms of behavior that would minimize the growing trend of dangerous action and reaction. In effect, it has focused on changing the rules of the game rather than picking sides in the contest.
Recently, however, the Obama Administration has made statements that can be read as taking sides (against China), eschewing its previous neutrality on the territorial disputes and mechanisms for resolving them. If policy in fact were to shift in that direction, it would be regrettable. The most positive contribution that the United States can make is to work to create an environment where our friends in the region cooperate rather than contend.
Richard C. Bush is director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.