Japanese territorial issues could jeopardise Asian trade links


TOKYO LETTER:Unofficial ‘disputes’ with China and South Korea over Japanese-held islands threaten to disrupt important economic partnerships

JAPAN’S SWELTERING high summer coincides with a string of agonising second World War anniversaries, climaxing with sombre ceremonies marking the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the country’s surrender in August 1945. Instead of being safely tucked away in history’s cupboard, however, the legacy of the nation’s past keeps leaking out to poison the present.

Two potentially corrosive disputes with China and South Korea have returned this week, threatening to disrupt one of the world’s most important tripartite economic partnerships. Japanese police have arrested 14 activists from Hong Kong who landed illegally on Wednesday on a goat-infested outcrop of Japanese-held islands called the Senkakus, 2,000km from Tokyo.

China’s foreign ministry has called for the activists’ “immediate and unconditional release”. Furious Chinese activists are threatening protests and boycotts of Japanese goods.

Meanwhile, Lee Myung-Bak stunned Tokyo earlier last week when he became the first South Korean president to visit the Dokdo islands, ending decades of quiet diplomacy over a long-festering problem. Lee then returned to the Korean mainland and lectured Tokyo on the lessons of history, adding that Japan’s emperor should avoid a long-mooted visit to Seoul unless he first apologises for the past.

Japan’s government and conservative media has reacted with predictable outrage. The country’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, said this week that Lee had “crossed a line” with his visit to a Dokdos, known as Takeshima in Japan. Nationalist politicians, meanwhile, have urged Tokyo to send self defence force troops to protect the Senkakus, a move that would almost certainly trigger a response in kind from China.

Beijing says the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyus in China, were essentially spoils of the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, after which they were annexed by Japan. For years, they have been owned by a private Japanese family who vowed to keep them out of foreign hands.

Tokyo’s governor Shintaro Ishihara ended that arrangement. In April, the famously outspoken nationalist, who has long warned that Japan could become a “colony” of China, announced a plan to buy the Senkakus on behalf of the city. A private fund raised roughly $20 million in donations, with pledges of more.

The tailwind behind Ishihara’s campaign forced Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda down off the fence from where most Japanese leaders have sat since 1971, when China and Taiwan began to make diplomatic noises about the Diaoyus. Noda now says the central government will buy most of the islands, effectively nationalising them.

The origins of the Dokdo/ Takeshima row are also tied to Japan’s brief colonial history. They were incorporated into Japanese territory in 1905, after Japan began to occupy Korea. Seoul expected them to be returned after the war. But references to the islets were dropped in the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty between Japan and the US. So South Korea later sent two permanent residents, an octopus fisherman and his wife, and a rotating crew of coastguard officials.

So much for history. The question for everyone in the region is, how far are the three countries prepared to go? Could China’s dispute with Japan over the barren Senkakus escalate? The spokesman for the current owners, Hiroyuki Kurihara, thinks not, pointing out that nobody wants a conflict between Asia’s two leading trading partners. “China has too much to lose.” But veteran Japan watcher Mark Selden, senior research associate in the East Asia programme at Cornell University, is one of many experts who disagree. “My view is that the possibility of a clash, including a military clash, is real. The issues have deep historical roots and the US left them unresolved.”

Tokyo has threatened to refer the Dokdo/Takeshima row to the International Court of Justice. Foreign minister Koichiro Gemba said this week that Japan has until now avoided that move because it worried about the impact on bilateral ties. “Such a consideration is now no longer necessary,” he said. This threat is effectively hollow, because the ICJ will not adjudicate unless the two sides are in agreement that there is a dispute. Much like Japan’s position on the Senkakus, South Korea takes its claim over the Dokdos/Senkakus as beyond argument. All of which leaves three countries that aspire to one day create a EU-style economic and political bloc very far apart. Tokyo and Seoul will probably muddle through this latest flap, though the damage will linger for years. As for China, the last time the two sides faced off over the Senkaku islands in 2010, Japan blinked first. In the midst of furious protests, Tokyo released a Chinese trawlerman who was arrested after ramming his boat into two Japanese coast guard vessels near the Senkakus.

China is again piling on the pressure for the release of the 14 activists, even as Japanese nationalists urge prosecution and jail for illegal trespass. Somewhere, everyone will have to find time to glance back toward the past if they are not going to mess up the future.

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