A Deadly Brew: Resources, Nationalism, and History
Image Credit: ehnmark (flickr)

A Deadly Brew: Resources, Nationalism, and History


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. 

Leonard R.
August 20, 2012 at 23:36

I amend my post by saying, if Japan or any other treaty ally asks the US to assist in defending itself against the PRC, the US should meet its obligations under that treaty. The strategic importance of Japan by virtue of its proximity to US territory in Alaska also implicates US national security. That is something I should have mentioned. 

Be Way
August 20, 2012 at 20:18

and to the Chinese, I wish they should cut loose of these useless and stupid antics like "Down with little Japan", "Down with Japanese devil"..and so on.     These antics are only good for monkeys.

Be Way
August 20, 2012 at 20:01

The only lesson that the Japanese will ever learn what is humility, for causing untold colossal pain and humiliation inflicted on its neighbors China and Korea for so many centuries, is to strike the corresponding punishment if not more deadly, on them when the time comes.    Anything lesser will only reflect the inferiority and mediocrity of mainland Asians esp for the Chinese.    Lest the Chinese can't accomplish the mission, they should all bow in shame and then disintegrate themselves in peace from the surface of the earth.   There is no choice, no excuses and no regret.    The Japanese must be taught the most painful lesson that they will never forget.

August 20, 2012 at 18:47

Is this reply a case of sarcasm or what? Whatever it is, I think the dispute over Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is just a small part of a bigger problem, which involves China's territorial rows with Southeast Asian nations over SCS. To prevent other countries capitalize on any agressive or assertive behaviours, China now wants to bide its time to quell the claims that China will steamroll over other countries into submission, which might entail more undesirable intervention from the US.
Of course that might be another possible reason for China not acting assertively over any territorial disputes: China is kind of forcible-feeble, ostensibly powerful but internally weak

Be Way
August 20, 2012 at 18:35

…a few short hops to Hawaii and ultimately California, and a little dash over to Washington DC….and then before dawn break, it's all over for warmongering imperialist America.   Praise to all Gods on Earth and up in Heaven, our prayers for peace of mankind are gracefully answered and fulfilled.   

Leonard R.
August 19, 2012 at 23:45

I partly agree with the author. The US should probably not take sides in the Korea/Japan/PRC island disputes. For one thing, Japan and Korea have their own dispute. The US certainly needs to stay out of that. 
It is a different matter for the Philippines. US national security is implicated in that dispute. People are advised to look at a map of the South Pacific. Put one finger on Manila and then another on Guam. After that, trace it to the Northern Mariana islands a short distance away, then eastward to the Johnston Atoll and finally a few short hops to Hawaii and ultimately California. And I didn't even mention the Marshalls are southeast of the Philippine archipelago. 
US sovereign territory could quickly be jeoparadized in the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal. So Americans need to ask themselves how safe these US sovereign islands would be if PLAN warships and subs were parked permanently off Palawan Island. America is much better off defending its interests there, than it would be playing defense off the coast of California. 

August 19, 2012 at 14:37

Beijing has always been a foolish and stupid leader.  It should allowed its activists to do its nationalist bit and nlet them go to the Daioyu island enmasse.  What are the Japanaese going to do?  Lock them all up?  Stupid Hu.  let your people go . Let them be free.  They are patriots.  You are insecure and incompetent.  Always looking after the interests of foreigners and suppressing your own peoples' interest.  Let your activists by the hundreds of thousands descend on Daioyu.
The same applies to you, Mr "Spineless" Ma Ying-jeou.  Let your peolle by the tens of thousands do the same.  let them go to the Daioyus.  Why are you so scared?  Coward.  Chicken.  Always fearful of the Japanese.

August 19, 2012 at 12:53

I respect that you are not part of the 50c bridgade from the PRC which is stirring incredible resentments throughout the regions and reactions througout the world. I do suggest that you put yourself into the role of a proper impartial mediator and see whether your comment is fair. I suggest to you that the people of the west really don't care at the moment, but they will if things escalate. 
The places you mentioned have its inhabitants supporting fully their respective nations, whereas the current situation in the SCS is silly. We are in the 21ist centery which is supposed to be the asian century and full of hope. The current financial crisis will pass as it always will but these kind of dangerous actions from china endanger everything. Do you think WW3 is that far off if this problem persists. The fact is this is a century of law, which gives us so much hope. If one nation believe that it is too big to follow any law then it is the last century again, but the weapons are far more dangerous. How hard is it to go to a neutral empire.
BTW, all the anti chinese sentiments at the moment are just people showing their resentment. If things turn ugly, i am sure you can see many instances in history where chinese people coped it sweet in their respective host nations.

August 19, 2012 at 09:12

the sad part is that the PRC isn't really motivated by history or resources; while those do come into the picture, they pose a different influence than one might think. Take, for example, the current diplomatic flashpoint between Japan and the PRC, the Senkaku islands. these islands were recorded as early as the 1500's in Imperial Chinese navigatorial logbooks…..as navigation landmarks. At no time was an attempt ever made by any of the dynasties of China to lay claim to the islands. In fact, Japan would be the first to do so in 1895, claiming the islands as terra nullius. this would be later administrated by the US after Japan's defeat in WWII, and the islands were then handed back to Japan as part of Okinawa Prefecture in 1971. It was not until this year that the PRC would lay claim to the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands, three years after the discovery of potential oil finds. Up until then, the PRC, as well as the ROC government before it, had consistently acknowledged the territory as Japanese. I'm getting this info from the blogger ampontan, who did extensive research, with proven links, into the issue at hand. I share his opinion that the actions of late as conducted by the PRC, especially the CPC's political and diplomatic conniption courtesy of the 2010 fisherman arrest incident, are indicative of what is to come as the PRC expands its power and military prowess; that these are not the actions of a responsible power on the world stage, committed to ensuring world peace, but rather the actions of a politically underdeveloped civilization that considers its well deserved humility to be but a speedbump in the suzerainty that–as taught to an increasingly vocal and blindly agressive public–is the PRC's national destiny and birthright.
for the link in question, search Michael Turlton's blog "the view from taiwan" and see the link at the bottom of the article "The Senkakus and Sovereignty".

August 18, 2012 at 11:54

All I can say is Japan has been spoiled by the US!  After WWII, very regrettable, China become a Commie nation (Japanese invasion was a big fact caused the rise of Communism in China), the geo-political dynamic of that time let US to ally with Japan to counter weight the forming of red China, since then Japan was able to off the hock from confronting it's criminal past, and even behaves in a snobby manner toward it's Asian neighbors.  I have ancestry in my family were murdered by Japanese, and I heard horrific massacre stories (Nanking massacre was not an alone event) from my grandfather when I was little, I am not Chinese nationalist as you would like to call me, I just very angry that Japan which has not done it's remedy, even shows respect to the pain and suffering to family like mine  throughout in Asia nations.  However now Japan is a sinking country no one can save, maybe it has finally come to meet it's karma.

August 18, 2012 at 02:18

The author said that "Japan has been a peaceful country ever since" 1945. Mr Bush, do you know why. It has been because the US have kept an eye on them since then by stationing 45k to 50k troop in there. Japanese have always been having an intention of aggression if they are strong enough or the opportunity is there. The US soldiers in Okinawa were not invited to be there, they have been there as occupiers after WWII. Japanese lost the war. No country wants to have foreign troops stationed in their mother land. But, Japanese have no choice.
The West media always blow up the situation of territorial disputes in China with other Asian countries. But, rarely wrote about the Japanese disputes, not only with China, but with S. Korea, & Russia.
I actually do not agree with China to claim almost the whole South China Sea. But, China may like to take a second look at the world suggestion of having the land given to the country which is the closest to the dispute islands. But China should argue that this rule should be applied all over the world. Then I don't think the West will support it. Why. because if that is the law, then the Dokdo island will have to be divided half, one goes to S. Korea, the rest goes to Japan, Then Diaoyu will go to Taiwan. Eventually, China will take over Taiwan anyway.  The Britain should be kicked out of Falkland islands and given back to Argentina. Gibraltar should be given back to Spain and the British should be out. Some of the Pacific islands should kick out the US and let them get independent.  They can tell the US not to use them as military bases anymore. Do you think the West will agree with these, I don’t think so.

henry ford
August 18, 2012 at 00:32

Richard- You're out of the gate wrong-footed, thus your silly criticism of  " regretable " non-action US statement:
1) China's escalated aggression in SCS is not compatible to activists landing in Japan/China island or presidential visit  of Japan/Korea island. Chinese is actually invading disputed islands, establising administrative and military preparation for eventual ownership without any internationally accepted foundation. The other incidents are symbolic as you rightfully, indicated.
2) The magnitude of danger is wastly different. Symbolic gestures happened frequently in the past and will continue similarily in the future based on national appetites and manageable with strengths compatibility. Chinese invasion of SCS broke past understanding / international norms and forces other claimant's hands to either react with similar effort or entering into unfair negotiations. Here, the strengths compatibility is so lopsided that makes hostility unmanageable.
3) Another significant difference is the COC already exists between ASEAN and China, having no deterence at all. How many more papers that China needs to sign before it will tear them apart ? The SCS reality is past looking for negotiated opportunities and the only question remained for Chinese neighbors is, when and how far their reactions will go, given their inferior capabilities and lack of global intervention ?
4) Unlike your mistaken assessment, the US position has been passive and may have contributed to current Chinese aggression in SCS. Their confessed neutrality and repeated calls for restrained hostilities between ASEAN and China were taken by Chinese government as weak. China has achieved its irreversable execution of ownership with a belated US declaration of opposition and it's nowhere near taking sides ( unless viewed from a Chinese propagandist talking point ).
5) With Chinese, other ASEAN nations continue their endless arms race and fuel nationalism, wars will be unavoidable and the US will reenter the the bloody theater for some costly clean-ups.

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