What's happening at the
Sunday 18 Feb 2018 | 06:51 | SYDNEY
Sunday 18 Feb 2018 | 06:51 | SYDNEY

Northeast Asia's 'other' disputes



30 July 2008 10:20

Northeast Asia has two levels of territorial disputes that together make ASEAN concerns about incipient Northeast Asian cooperation undercutting ASEAN’s relevance rather fanciful.

The first level is the Cold War ideological disputes on the Korean peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait. These two conflicts have well-institutionalised processes of management with the US at the centre. These conflicts also divide the region between those who are US allies and those who are not. They are also constantly identified as the major Northeast Asian flashpoints, and both are nuclear-tipped.

But there is a second level of disputes in Northeast Asia that precede the Cold War and are based not on opposing ideologies but opposing nationalisms. These have no institutionalized processes of management, the US is not involved and they split the region in a very different manner. A couple of weeks ago I blogged on the Japan-Taiwan dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets and how it helped bring Taipei and Beijing closer together and pushed Taipei and Tokyo apart.

Less than a week after this diplomatic stand-off, the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute blew up again (we seem to be moving into an annual cycle here) between Seoul and Tokyo over some new guidelines for Japanese history textbooks for the year 2012. Seoul withdrew its Ambassador to Japan for two weeks, and it was announced that the coming defence white paper, while not referring to North Korea as the 'main enemy', would emphasise the defence of Korea’s claim to these islets. Japan’s offer to discuss the issue at the ASEAN Regional Forum was rejected by Seoul, who scotched plans for a renewal (after 4 years of political roadblocks stemming from the Koizumi-Roh era) of bilateral FTA talks and threatened to withdraw from the inaugural South Korea-Japan-China leaders’ summit to be held in Japan later this year.

North Korea, Russia and China all criticized Japan and supported South Korea, no doubt because Russia and China have their own territorial disputes with Japan. The latest dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima has also further soured already strained relations between Seoul and Washington, as President Lee is reported to be furious that the American Board on Geographic Names refers to these islets by the neutral term the Liancourt Rocks and not as Dokdo (or Takeshima). Even though this has been the case for over 30 years, Seoul is now demanding the US use the term Dokdo.

Finally, Mt Baekdu, the spiritual home of the Korean people, unites both Koreas against China, and in the 2007 Asian Winter Games in China, some South Korean speed skaters used the medal ceremony to hold up a sign claiming the whole mountain (not just the 60% they now hold) as theirs. These territorial disputes divide Northeast Asia among much different lines than the major Cold War ones and are bubbling up with greater frequency. And yet, there is no will on any side to try to reach an agreement on them. Best to keep our eyes on these disputes and how they affect regional cooperation.

You may also be interested in...