Japan’s dilemma: maritime disputes in East Asia

Author: Soon Ho Lee, University of Hull

Recently, the maritime rivalry among East Asian countries has increased dramatically. There are several possible reasons for this.

First, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’s entry into force in 1994 coincided with East Asian countries’ claims on different territorial waters and small islands, as it stipulates that a nation state’s sovereignty extends to 12 nautical miles of territorial water. States also have sovereign rights in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities, and 350 nautical miles of continental shelf.

Second, since there is no longer the same contest of ideology between East Asian nations, so avidly chasing the national interest has become more important: these territorial disputes are seen as matters of national pride.

Third, reflecting their economic growth, East Asian countries have started to actively pursue their maritime interests. A regional maritime regime could provide an opportunity for these disputes to be resolved peacefully.

Japan has dragged out naval disputes with Russia (the Northern Territories/Kuril islands), China (Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) and South Korea (Takeshima/Dokdo). Yet the Japanese approach is questionable. Some commentators argue that Japanese political parties are using these territorial disputes to attract conservative voters, and that the Japanese regime still prefers direct bilateral confrontation.

In mid-2010 the Democratic Party of Japan lost its majority in the Japanese House of Councillors election and was experiencing low popularity. It was around this time when Japan adopted a hard-line approach in its maritime disputes. The Japanese government asked South Korea to put the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute forward in the International Court of Justice. It also made the three disputed islands in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands a national issue. Ultimately, the East Asian countries jumped on the bandwagon in relation to these conflicts and, because of the looming national elections scheduled for 2012, each country did not back down and the crisis escalated.

Last year was an important year for Japan as there was a general election. Neighbouring countries also had significant transitions: China had the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party in November 2012, South Korea held its presidential election in December, and there was a presidential election in Russia in March. During the election campaigns, in order to consolidate support among conservative voters, each country’s political parties took a strong stance on their respective maritime disputes. And to a certain degree, East Asian countries do not want to be viewed as weak, given their strength in overcoming international economic crises, and are ready to actively enter into territorial disputes.

In the short term, these maritime disputes are likely to be resolved peacefully. China has emphasised peaceful development, and does not want to create friction with the United States. Other East Asian countries also want to avoid escalation of any territorial disputes. However, if Japan continuously tries to divert attention away from their domestic crisis by heaping attention on its maritime disputes, Japan’s regional isolation will be accelerated.

Moreover, Japan’s maritime disputes with East Asian countries, especially with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, could severely affect the Japanese economy because of aggravated anti-Japanese sentiment and the potential for bilateral trade reprisals. The Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute may also ignite Chinese nationalism, which may then become a heavy burden on China’s Communist Party. In such circumstances, this dispute could escalate into armed conflict.

What, then, is the best policy option for Japan? Japan needs to carefully consider creating multilateral diplomatic channels. During the Cold War, Japan favoured bilateral talks, with the United States usually acting as an arbitrator. At that stage, bilateral talks were the logical choice, since the capitalist bloc countries could not neglect Japan’s clout — Japan possessed impressive negotiation skills and had valuable international connections, especially in maritime matters. Now, Japan is not as dominant as it used to be, and the United States is not willing to actively engage in Japan’s disputes, as this could increase anti-American sentiment in East Asia. In this context, if Japan tries to solve the problem with bilateral confrontations, their actions would receive international attention and would be more susceptible to domestic pressure, which would inevitably aggravate existing tensions.

Environmental concerns in the disputed seas also need to be discussed through multilateral channels. In contemporary East Asia, there are no regional maritime regimes to deal with environmental concerns, nor with the joint development of natural resources. Japan has suffered from China’s industrialisation, through maritime pollution and depletion of fishing resources. Better channels of maritime communication with other East Asian countries would eventually benefit Japan, as it could allow Japan to gain access to the rich natural resources in the disputed seas, and could open a dialogue between Japan and other East Asia countries to address environmental concerns.

A regional maritime regime could be an avenue for Japan to peacefully resolve its territorial disputes as it would reduce the burden of bilateral confrontation. Japan could expect indirect support from other regional partners willing to balance the rapid emergence of China. Japan would also be able to exert its expertise in maritime matters, and, together with other East Asian countries, develop regional strategies to prevent the exploitation of maritime resources and ocean pollution more effectively.

Soon Ho Lee is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies, The University of Hull.

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