Why Japan, South Korea, and China Are So Riled Up Over a Few Tiny Islands

The old nationalist tensions are rising over some disputed Asian islands.

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Japanese nationalists protest the South Korean president's visit to a disputed island. (Reuters)

August 15 marks the anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. Japan's defeat was complete, and its losses unprecedented. Today, Japanese television coverage traced the final days of devastation, with those who lived through the war (now in their 80s) narrating accounts of the firebombing that ruined most of Tokyo and the atomic bombing that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For Japanese it continues to be a day of national mourning for those lost, and an annual opportunity to remind the nation and its neighbors of Japan's postwar commitment to peace.

For Japan's neighbors, however, it seems that August 15 is increasingly an opportunity to demonstrate their own national narratives of the war. This year South Korean president Lee Myung-bak became the first president to visit the contested Takeshima/Dokdo Islands, and his speech celebrating Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation reminded Japan that Koreans will not forgive their neighbor for its wartime enslavement of Korean women.

Hong Kong activists took the opportunity to send ships to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, small islets whose sovereignty is contested by Taiwan, the PRC, and Japan. Despite warnings from the Japan Coast Guard (JCG), seven activists dove overboard to swim to the islands--with five making it to land and two turning back to the ship. The JCG, the Japanese police, and agents from the Japanese immigration service met the activists who were subsequently detained. The Hong Kong ship and its remaining nine-member crew have since also been detained. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda tersely stated that they will be treated in accordance with Japanese law.

Nationalist fervor over the Senkakus was also on display in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Beijing through demonstrations claiming sovereignty over the Senkakus/Diaoyu Islands. Activism is not new to either Taiwan or Hong Kong. But demonstrations advocating Chinese sovereignty over the Senkakus intensified when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two JCG vessels in the waters off the Senkaku Islands in September 2010. The trawler, Minjinyu 5179, was subsequently detained. Although the ship and its crew were soon released to China, the captain was not. Japan's prosecutors charged him with obstructing the JCG's performance of its duties.

Japan has long had to cope with activism such as this. Taiwanese and Hong Kong based activists have focused on the territorial dispute over the Senkakus since the 1970s, and in 2002, a group of Chinese activists also landed on the islands. The Japanese government has treated these incidents as violations of domestic law, but has more often than not promptly returned activists to their home countries. Detentions have been the norm, but the consequences have ranged from warnings to fines. In September 2010, the dangerous behavior of the Chinese trawler captain upped the ante, however, and his detention opened the possibility that he would be prosecuted.

This incident transformed thinking within Japan about the defense of its offshore islands. It also stimulated for the first time a serious popular response that will make decision making on the Senkaku Islands much more difficult for any Japanese leader. Prime Minister Noda today faces considerable domestic pressure to defend Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, including pressure from the very conspicuous advocate for Senkaku nationalism, Tokyo's governor Shintaro Ishihara.

President Lee's visit to the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands and the Chinese activism on the Senkakus may seem similar, but in fact they should be viewed differently. As Scott Snyder so persuasively argued, if serious conflict among nations is to be avoided, then political leaders must assume the role of statesmen when it comes to the pressures of nationalism. They have a choice: they can satisfy the nationalist impulse (usually for political gain) or they can mediate its impact on their nation's foreign relations.

Prime Minister Noda will now face considerable pressures within Japan on the management of Japan's disputed territories. If South Korea and Japan cannot agree to disagree on Takeshima/Dokdo, then their differences ought to be argued in international court. Negotiations with Russia over the Northern Territories also seem to have failed. Russia's political leaders have chosen to ignore decades of effort to create a cooperative solution, and have visited the islands. Moreover, they have increased military deployments and invited foreign dignitaries to legitimize their control over these disputed islands. Chinese and Japanese activism on the Senkakus is increasing, and could potentially derail one of the region's most important bilateral relationships.

This new wave of territorial nationalism in East Asia will be difficult to manage. It is entirely conceivable that Japan's political leaders will respond to President Lee's visit with activism of their own. Governor Ishihara will undoubtedly use this as an opportunity to push his plan for purchasing the Senkaku Islands, and is likely to try to visit himself. Japan's national leaders--from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Prime Minister Noda today--have sought to maintain a low-key approach to managing the Senkakus, but those who seek a more assertive nationalist response could make that difficult.

Prime Minister Noda could succumb to these pressures, or he can continue to demonstrate a calm and consistent approach to managing these islands. However, he will need to respond to the intrusion into Japanese waters of the Hong Kong vessel, and any further actions taken by either activists or government officials from Hong Kong. Already this summer the Taiwanese Coast Guard has been acting as an escort to fishing vessels that intentionally enter into Senkaku waters. Should Chinese activists join in the fray, this could easily escalate into a major confrontation with emotions on all sides of the East China Sea running high.

Leaders of all Northeast Asia nations must recognize the costs to the entire region of the nationalisms of the 20th century. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese peoples have all paid the tremendous cost of war. Yet they have rebuilt dynamic and prosperous societies, and while the wounds of last century's wars are still raw, reactive nationalism is not the salve that will heal them. Blame and retribution will only create conflict, and if unchecked, could lead yet again to war.

Territorial disputes today can be adjudicated under international law, and scientific evidence and legal argument should be the armaments in that battle. Reflection on the costs of war should be part of every nation's conversation on days of memorial. But the leaders of each nation must find the courage to remind their nations to look forward while working to create the path to reconciliation with those who were once enemies. There are too many opportunities to demonstrate the value of cooperation among the countries of Northeast Asia for anyone to persuade me that the hurts of the past cannot be overcome.

It is a difficult task, but for Japan, South Korea, and China, it is perhaps the most pressing one.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.