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May 9, 2021

East Asia’s Islands Power Game

When talking about East and South-East Asia we have gotten used to mentioning the US “pivot” that American President Barack Obama recently announced, meaning the shifting of the American power’s centre of gravity to this part of the world, or about the tense situation in the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula. Of course, all under the impact of China’s impressive economic growth in the last three decades, as well as of the formula that has already become a cliché according to which the 21st Century will be Asia’s century. With everything that fact entails from the point of view of the North Atlantic and Europe losing their systemic centrality. Apart from these “beaten paths” of more or less recent analyses of the global systemic developments, there are however other realities that concern this huge and extremely important continent for today’s international equations.

One of them is the yet unhealed legacy of the Second World War, especially in what concerns territorial issues. Of course, the issue of the Kurile Islands that Russia took possession of after the last world war and which are claimed by Japan, the “northern territories” as the Japanese call the four islands occupied by the USSR at the end of the conflict in 1945, is well known. At the start of last month, Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev visited the islands, Tokyo immediately expressing “extreme regret” for the gesture. Which sparked the reply of the high Russian official: “I do not care.” As known, Japan and Russia have not signed a peace treaty after the Second World War, the issue of the “northern territories” being the cause of this historical reality.But this is not the only unfinished file with a territorial stake in this region of Asia. During the Cold War the leadership in Beijing openly raised the issue of its borders with the USSR, including the borders on the Pacific, which even led to armed clashes towards the end of the 1960s. The situation is the same from the point of view of the route that the border between the two states takes, but Sino-Russian relationships today are relationships of alliance sealed through multiple cooperation agreements. Lately we have seen two other “maritime” developments that have a territorial stake. The first was the South Korean President Lee-Myung-bak’s unexpected visit to the chain of small islands known as Dokdo in Korea and as Takeshima in Japan. The South Korean President’s visit was not at all by chance. August 15 marked 67 years since Korea obtained independence from Japan and on that day a team of young Korean swimmers covered the 220 kilometers that separate these islands from South Korea in approximately 49 hours. It was undeniably a gesture meant to affirm their country’s sovereignty over this maritime territory. Ever since 1954 Seoul has posted a small garrison in one of these islands with the same goal in mind and in order to counter the Japanese claims of sovereignty. A day later the South Korean President conducted the aforementioned visit, the first paid by an official of such a rank, stating that Japan did not ask for forgiveness for the crimes it committed against the Korean people in the world war. Moreover, he pointed out that the Japanese Emperor will not be able to visit South Korea until he expresses “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s colonial rule in the Korean Peninsula since the end of the 19th Century until the 1940s. In the face of these developments, Japan summoned the South Korean Ambassador in Tokyo in protest and withdrew its own ambassador from Seoul, suggesting that it might subject the dispute to the arbitration of the International Court of Justice. Of course this is not just a clash of prestige concerning sovereignty, at stake being also the rich offshore natural gas deposits and the rich wild fisheries associated with this chain of islands.A Japanese comment (belonging to a former Foreign Minister) shows that there is “an increasing sense of frustration in Japan” concerning the Korean officials’ assertions and actions.The second event that took place last week concerns the Senkaku Island (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea, where a group of Chinese activists landed in order to point out their country’s sovereignty (half of them were shortly thereafter detained by Japanese authorities). Immediately after they left the island their place was taken by a group of Japanese activists that arrived there with the same purpose in mind. Disputed ever since the 14th Century, occupied by Japan at the end of the 19th Century and placed under US control at the end of the last world war, Senkaku (Diaoyu) was ceded to Japanese administration in 1971. Undeniably, in this case too at stake is not only national prestige but also the fact that the island’s territorial waters hold important oil and gas deposits. As can be seen, this power game targets Japan, which throughout the last world war tried to build a vast East Asian empire historically known as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Apart from these recent developments we have to point out that other territorial claims inherited not only from the last world war but also from the distant past are to be found in the same huge region. The Paracel Islands (approximately 130 uninhabited islands) in the South China Sea for example are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, the first two countries even waging a small-scale war over them in 1974. Likewise, the Spratly Archipelago located in the same South China Sea is claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. These examples close the list of territorial disputes in this part of the world.Hence, in this part of the world there is a very important local strategic dynamic characterized by files historically strained by territorial disputes, many of them inherited from the 20th Century, complicated by Japan’s militaristic adventure of creating an empire in this region during the last world war – an event that left deep national frustrations – , which can develop independently of the action of external actors irrespective of how big they might be. A veritable cold war – similar to the one that dominated the Euro-Atlantic region in the bipolar era – is broadly outlined in East Asia. The possibility of it turning into ‘hot’ punctiform wars should not be ruled out at all.

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