Beyond nationalism: An approach to ‘explosive’ territorial disputes

Joint Project between the Northeast Asian History Foundation and The AsiaN

*Editor’s Note: Security in East Asia is swaying in a rough sea. North Korea’s nuclear crisis has been highly elated amid existing territorial disputes and deep-rooted conflicts between nations in the region. South Korea, China and Japan, the countries directly involved, are all looking for a new order in the process of power shift. In search of sensible solutions for historical conflicts in East Asia, The AsiaN and the Northeast Asian History Foundation have jointly featured a column series by experts on current issues in East Asia. The contribution series of  in-depth analyses, insights and strategic solutions will be provided in four languages including English, Korean, Chinese and Arabic.

[Expert Column Series on Current Issues in East Asia] ⑦ Beyond nationalism: An approach to ‘explosive’ territorial disputes

A couple of weeks ago I was in Tumen, the tiny and sleepy Chinese city in frozen Northeast China, not far from the Russian border. In the city park, there was an exhibition of snow and ice sculptures, an annual event in the city. The largest of these sculptures depicted a few islands in the middle of the sea (represented by a frozen pond). Their shape is known to all Chinese people nowadays, but the large characters directly next to the pond left no room for doubt: “Diaoyu is Chinese land.”

Every time I go to an ATM at my university campus in Seoul, I cannot help but see a small picture which is affixed on its front. This picture depicts another, even smaller island, whose shape is known to all Koreans, the caption says “Dokdo is our [that is, Korean] land.”

The above are just two of countless reminders about the ongoing territorial disputes which play such an important role in the politics of modern East Asia. Recently, one of these disputes – that of Senkaku/Diaoyu island – has grown large and dangerous enough to attract significant international attention. However, such disputes are quite typical of East Asia, even though many of them are almost completely unknown outside interested countries.

East Asia is a dangerous place – perhaps one of the potentially most dangerous places in the modern world. Political passions might not run here as high and violent as, say, in the Middle East, but the nations whose real or perceived interests clash in East Asia are, themselves, tremendously powerful. This is an area, after all, where two of the three world’s largest economies are located (and the countries with these two economies – China and Japan – do not exactly like one another).

The situation is further complicated by the absence of efficient regional structures whose existence could potentially mitigate national rivalries. East Asia has no equivalent of the European Union or NATO – and due to a number of reasons, it is unlikely to acquire such a structure any time soon.

Powerful rival nationalisms play a role here, too. In Europe, nationalism has become largely a spent force by the late 20th century, and in the Middle East, its significance is often overridden by religious and tribal affinities. In East Asia, though, state-oriented ethnic nationalism remains the single most powerful ideological force.

All this means that East Asia presents us with a picture that is analogous to Europe of the early 20th century, when Europe was on the eve of the bloody folly known as the First World War.

Of course, it can be argued that East Asian countries are too obsessed with economic growth, and are also too economically interdependent to be excessively bellicose. From this comes the corollary that we should not be worried about the possibility of war in the region. The argument clearly makes sense, but a skeptical mind would probably retort that in early 20th century many European liberals argued that a large-scale war in Europe would be impossible too. They used the exactly same arguments, citing the economic interdependence and the triumphant spirit of capitalist growth.

If a war is indeed to ever break out in East Asia, one can with some confidence predict that this conflict is most likely to result from one (or more) of the many territorial disputes that have clouded interstate relations with in the region for decades.

Very often, these passionate disputes are about seemingly insignificant parts of real estate. More often than not, tiny and sparsely populated islands off the coast. In most cases, some economic interests are indeed also at stake – due to the relatively novel introduction on exclusive economic zones (EEZs, an idea that was enshrined in international law only in the early 1980s), control of some of these rocks in the middle of nowhere can justify exclusive access to large and potentially valuable areas of the world ocean.

However, one cannot help but suspect that in many cases these territorial arguments are heated by nationalism – and are also manipulated by the nationalists. Unscrupulous politicians often use the issues to fan nationalist passions, which are sure vote-winners in modern East Asia (unfortunately).

This is a myopic and potentially dangerous game. Of course, a politico can easily improve his/her approval ratings by presenting themselves as a staunch protector of the motherland’s sacred lands. However, one should remember – once again – that this is how the World War One (and countless other wars) began. The mindless slaughter of 1914-18 began with petty nationalist confrontation in the Balkans.

Therefore, for the sake of East Asia’s future, territorial issues should be ignored as much as possible, even though the temptation to do otherwise might be too great for too many people in a position of power in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul (and in some cases in Moscow, Manila, Bangkok and Hanoi as well). However, one should remember long-term gains from stable and cooperative relations in region, compared to  the short-term gains from yet another nationalist frenzy.

It seems that the most rational way of dealing with the issue is tacitly to accept the current administrative control for determining sovereignty rights over a disputed territory.

Frankly, one has to be skeptical of the use of historic arguments – favored by many in territorial disputes over Dokdo/Takeshima, Senkaku/Diaoyu, Spratly Islands and the like. All interested parties love to look for (often highly dubious) proves of their alleged control over the respective territories from time immemorial. The truth is that so many of these islands are too small to support any economically significant population, so no state actually paid much attention to these tiny pieces of land until the introduction of idea of territorial waters and, much later, EEZs.

However, the idea of territorial waters began to take hold in East Asia only in the last decades of the 19th century. Before that, states in East Asia were not interested in territory that could not generate significant revenues. In the pre-modern world, territory was not so much an area within predefined borders, but rather a network of urban and rural areas which could be taxed and where valuable resources could be extracted.

As a matter of fact, the primacy of current administrative control is tacitly recognized by most of the international community. Therefore, for a country that is exercising such control it always makes perfect sense to remain calm and to not make excessive noise when other claimants begin to advance their own competing claims. This strategy has been successfully followed by the United Kingdom with regard to the Falkland islands/Malvinas in the last 30 years.

This is of course applicable to Korea. Its major territorial dispute is with Japan, and it is centred on a group of tiny islands and rocks known in Korean as Dokdo (in English they are usually referred to as the ‘Liancourt Rocks’) located off the east coast of Korea. While the history of the islands is rather convoluted, it is undeniable that the islands have been under the control of the South Korean government for the last sixty years.

Therefore, the Korean side should make the most of its de facto ownership. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. When the Japanese government (or, more frequently, some maverick Japanese politician) reiterates Japanese claims to the islands, the Korean public and media go ballistic. In an extreme case, the former President Lee Myung-bak even went to the islands last August. Ostensibly, he was there to support the South Korean claims to the islands. However, one cannot help suspect that it was yet another plot by a Korean politician looking to capitalize on easily aroused nationalist passions, making use of territorial disputes for short-term political gain.

Such policy, however, is rather myopic. When high-level South Korean politicians deliver solemn statements, they achieve the opposite of the results that are putatively intended. Instead of reinforcing Korean claims – based on the undisputed fact of administrative control – they rather undermine Korea’s position in the dispute and create unnecessary tensions.

When the average foreigner in Europe or the United States learns that the South Korean president visited some disputed rock, or when he or she comes across a full-page New York Times advertisement paid for by Korean nationalists, he or she will probably come to the conclusion that Korean claims to the islands must be based on rather shaky foundations. Otherwise, a foreign observer would surmise, there would be no reason to support these claims with such dramatic and expensive gestures.

Therefore, it would be much better for Korean national interests if some statement by a Japanese cabinet minister would be responded to not by a presidential visit on rocks, but rather a low profile diplomatic expression of displeasure (probably best delivered by an embarrassingly young and visibly bored third secretary of the Korean embassy).

Such an approach would serve Korean interests, but paradoxically enough it would serve the interests of other parties too. This attitude would help to calm down dangerous nationalist passions and thus would help to dissolve (or at least control) tensions over territorial issues.

Once again, territorial issues are dangerous and potentially explosive. So, it helps if all sides exercise restraint and resist the temptation to use such issues as a tool for nationalistic mobilization, but this is not always in the issues of the countries that control the territories in dispute.

One Response to Beyond nationalism: An approach to ‘explosive’ territorial disputes

  1. ShinHeuk Kang 20 March , 2013 at 6:40 pm

    When I was 10 years old, I recited a song insisting “Dokdo is our land” The song sounds good and sweet to me. So from 10 years old, we grew up singing “Dokdo is our land”. From outside view, this is a new perspective. Since I am Korean, I should claim Dokdo is our land. But, the argument that it can be political is universal to most nations. We should not make use of territorial issues in political interest. Sadly, some politicians do. And pretending to devaluing the claim to our land. Genarally, it is appealing to have rule about territorial dispute that at least not make use of it poltically.


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