Islands as Pressure Points

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Islands as Pressure Points

A range of competing interests complicates island territorial disputes between Japan, China and South Korea.

While water flows, land stands still. This is something to keep in mind as analysts seek to assess the wider implications of the recurring incidents around the disputed island features of North-east Asia.

Island features are like ‘pressure points,’ where questions of competing national identity, energy security, resource management and strategic geography meet to create a fragile and constantly shifting balance. The pressure each regional actor seeks to exercise at these points when particular incidents occur will have significant repercussions on regional dynamics. But the exact nature of this pressure, and its wider impact, will largely depend on whether the actors involved prioritise sovereignty and ownership over common access and management.

Now’s a good time to debate this topic as the past few months have witnessed an increase in serious naval incidents over disputed maritime areas in Asia. In September 2010, Sino-Japanese relations reached a new low after a Chinese trawler collided with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats around the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands).

A couple of months later, in mid-December, South Korean authorities detained eight Chinese fisherman, again after a Chinese vessel had collided with a patrol vessel as it intervened to stop them from illegally fishing in South Korea’s western waters.

And last week, there was another incident, when a 29-ton South Korean fishing boat was accused of entering Japanese waters near the Liancourt Rocks, another disputed area known in Korea as Dokdo and in Japan as Takeshima.

What do these incidents have in common? They all share this ‘pressure points’ status as they’re important for a number of reasons. First, the ownership of the islands is seen by those involved as a matter of national identity and status. The clearest example of this is Dokdo/Takeshima, an extremely sensitive issue in South Korea, where the islands are a symbol of the opening salvos of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. Similarly, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are for China part of a set of territories representing a ‘century of humiliation’ supposedly inflicted upon the country.

Second, the ownership of the islands is an issue of energy security and access to resources. Both the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Dokdo/Takeshima islands include rich fishing grounds (all incidents have involved fishing activities) and sit over potentially significant quantities of natural resources. Their ownership would generate EEZ rights of no mean importance for all actors involved.

And third, ownership of these islands favours control of crucial sea lanes, which carry the lifeblood of these nation’s economic engines.

So, if these pressure points are so important to all involved, aren’t they bound to be a source of competition and conflict?

Not necessarily. In order to defuse tensions, the key question for each state actor is whether they want to prioritise ownership of space or the management and use of the resources connected to that space. If the countries involved could focus on the practicalities of how to access, manage and distribute resources – whether it be fish or oil and natural gas – it would provide an opportunity for cooperation and confidence building. Trust is crucial in dealing with issues of national sensitivity, but such trust needs to be created over time. Focusing on management rather than ownership might buy some of that time.

The latest case involving the South Korean fishing boat actually offers some positive indicators, with the governments in Seoul and Tokyo deciding not to exacerbate tensions (although it’s far too early to suggest that this is a clear sign of growing mutual political trust and confidence).

One observer pointed out that one of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's ‘tasks for the new year is to weigh the relative advantages of Japan's assertion of sovereignty to these barren rocks (i.e. Dokdo/Takeshima) versus its strategic interest in a de facto alliance with South Korea’.

Focusing on ways to utilize the sea for mutual benefit rather than stoking tensions by concentrating on defining ownership might be a possible way forward on this.