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Aug 21, 2012 | 07:08 GMT

5 mins read

China, Japan and the Island Disputes

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Japanese officials have asked China to protect Japanese citizens and businesses amid anti-Japanese protests that are breaking out in China after nationalist Japanese activists landed on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In South Korea, officials have rejected Japanese calls for international arbitration over the status of the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands less than two weeks after South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made the first ever presidential visit to the islands.

Meanwhile, the United States has called on Japan and China to deal with their dispute via dialogue, rather than provocation, and is quietly urging South Korea and Japan to put aside their maritime dispute. After months of tensions in the South China Sea centered on perceived Chinese assertiveness, attention has shifted north, with Japan at the center of controversy.

Maritime disputes in Asia are nothing new. The Senkaku/Diaoyu and Dokdo/Takeshima issues have been simmering for decades — and in some cases, centuries — as have disputes over the Spratly/Nansha Islands and the Paracel/Xisha Islands in the South China Sea, and the Kuril/Northern Territories between the Sea of Okhotsk and the northern Pacific Ocean. Smaller disputes include those between South Korea and North Korea over five small islands along the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea and a dispute over the sub-sea rock Ieodo/Suyan between South Korea and China. The islands disputes also correspond with conflicting claims over territorial waters and exclusive economic zones and are steeped in centuries of historical rivalries.

The geographic position of some of these islands offers only minimal strategic benefit for the possessor, although there may be some gain in control over sub-sea resources based on an enlarged exclusive economic zone. Although the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands sit along the Ryukyu Islands chain, China would be hard-pressed to maintain a robust and secure forward-deployed presence there should it try to occupy the islands as part of securing its access to the Pacific. The distance from the mainland, and the nearness to Japanese forces in the Ryukyus, would make supply and security tenuous in case of a conflict. Further, were China to hold the islands, it would only increase the forward-deployed Japanese (and potentially U.S.) military forces in the southern Ryukyus closer to the Chinese mainland.

Contrarily, Japanese possession of the islands does not fundamentally alter Japanese security, since the islands offer little as additional bases for forward-deployed forces; Japan has plenty of other secure locations within the Ryukyu chain. Tokyo's policy toward the islands since the 1970s has been to avoid conflict. The Japanese government rents four of the five islands from private Japanese citizens, and in doing so makes landing or building on the islands illegal. In short, Tokyo retains administrative control but does not allow development on the islands, which satisfies China's interests by leaving enough ambiguity for China to claim the islands without feeling compelled to take action to secure them.

The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands are in a similar position. The exclusive economic zone is important for access to sub-sea resources, but the islets themselves are so small they offer little in the way of any potential location for military facilities. Further, South Korea already has facilities on Ulleungdo, the larger island nearby, and is keeping the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands under watch. If Tokyo were to try to occupy the islands, it would find it nearly impossible to secure the garrison if a conflict arose between the two nations. All supplies would need to come from Japan, leaving any base there vulnerable to blockade or interdiction.

Similar situations can be found in the Spratly/Nansha Islands, but the distance from China to most of the islands again leaves any Chinese facility extremely vulnerable. In the Paracel/Xisha dispute, things are somewhat different, as the islands are near both the Chinese and Vietnamese coastlines, and thus the strategic interest is much more pronounced. It is perhaps no coincidence then that it is in the Paracel/Xisha dispute that actual conflict took place between China and Vietnam in the 1970s. Conflict has also been more frequent along the Northern Limit Line between the two Koreas, with naval clashes in the Yellow Sea and North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

In most of the other disputed areas, conflicts have either been confined largely to the actions of civilians (clashes between fishermen and coast guard vessels, nationalist activists, etc.), or they have been primarily rhetorical. In many cases, the disputes have no political solutions. Neither Seoul (or Pyongyang) nor Tokyo can afford to give up its claim to the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. Beijing and Tokyo are both locked in their claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Giving in is a surefire way to lose domestic political legitimacy. Stirring the issue, on the other hand, can focus domestic attention on a common external "threat" and bolster nationalist credentials. But core national security is rarely at stake.

Because of this, many of these issues are manageable, such as Japan's decision not to allow its own citizens on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or South Korea's recent announcement to turn Dokdo into a geo-park, thus making it off-limits for developers. Additionally, although the various governments allow their citizens to blow off steam in nationalist fervor, if conflict arises, the respective governments often intervene. Broader trade relations see only minor interference, such as China's blocking of rare earth exports to Japan, a move that was part of a broader Chinese strategy to control the overall rare earth market. But overall trade between the countries often remains robust, as does investment.

Contrarily, the political and emotional nature of the island disputes, particularly when the strategic element is of less significance, also means that countries may be willing to let things escalate at a pace they then find themselves unable to control. It also leaves the countries at the mercy of individual interests. Consequently, these island disputes are prone to unexpected escalations and accidental crises, something largely held in check during the Cold War but now more prone to emerge amid the rebalancing of regional power.

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