Conflicting claims over two small groups of islands lying between the prosperity rim of East Asia has established that reason does not always govern nations when popular votes or state power matters. The island called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean that are located about 200 kilometers away from their mainland is under South Korean control since 1945 when Japan was defeated in World War II, have become a sticking point between two major Asian economies.
Despite Japan’s repeated pleas, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak choose to make a surprise visit at the disputed islands on August 10. Japan in protest recalled its ambassador to South Korea and cancelled a planned forward looking meeting between the finance ministers.
In June, two vibrant Asian democracies were going to sign a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) stipulating the two countries to share technology, tactical strategy, cryptographic codes, and code-deciphering systems but President Myung – bak decided to put it off at the last minute. The GSOMIA would allow both Japan and South Korea share all relevant information with each other in order to develop a common wartime strategy during the crisis that appears impending in view of the North Korean weapons programs and China’s growing military strength.
Both countries and specially South Korea found it hard to manage the deep historical bitterness and suspicion existing between the two countries since the Japanese colonial rule that had ended after the Second World War. Ironically, President Myung –bak who had been following a liberal pragmatic politics against the former colonial masters was severally attacked by the South Korean opposition as the “pro- Japanese” that according to Choe Sang Hun in The New York Times has been the worst accusation a South Korean politician could face, especially in an election year. To demonstrate greater resolve in favor of any historic agreement for the larger interest of the country in a completely uncertain time was a hard job and President Myung-bak . But, when his party felt fixed by his pragmatic foreign policy approach against Japan- a traditional adversary — and tried to distance from his policy he felt tremendous pressure that he could not resist.
Similarly Japan and China are contesting over the sovereignty of an archipelago that consists of five uninhabited islands and three reefs that are controlled by Japan since 1895. China including Taiwan claims the islands as a part of their territory since ancient times. The island group called Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China lies between China, Taiwan and Japan’s Southernmost Okinawa islands.
Greater Powers Interests in Narrow waters of East Asia
Previously , the trilateral Summit meeting in May between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and President of the South Korea Lee Myung-bak in Beijing opened new possibilities for spurring economic integration. A deal signed during summit to promote, facilitate and protect investment among the three nations was also expected to reduce traditional suspicion existing between Japan and Korea to a large extent.
Perhaps the most significant achievement for global trade would be the consensus among the three to initiate negotiations on a trilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) by the end of this year. According to the former South Korean foreign minister Young-kwan Yoon – such a trade regime would necessitate the global trade map to be redrawn and even dwarf the European Union and North American Free Trade Agreement. Mr. Kwan Yoon in Project Syndicate further admits that such a FTA would trigger a chain reaction bringing huge stimulus to global economy that would further incorporate the ASEAN and the trade bandwagon thus created is most likely to be joined by Australia, New Zealand, and another major global as well as Asian economy India. But the tension surfacing between Japan and South Korea might put the highly promising FTA environment in jeopardy.
East China Sea is also one the major strategic water of Asia joining another most important strategic water- South China Sea with Sea of Japan where countries like China, Japan and Russia joins together.
Amid mounting tension among China -Japan and Korea- Japan, Moscow of late has come to fuel the tension with decisions to send its two vessels to the another group of disputed islands named as Kurils – lying between Japan’s Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula but under Russian control since World War II. Ignoring Japan’s protests Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the Kurils Islands in 2010 first time at such a high level and again this year in July as Prime Minister asserting that Russian strategic role in East Asia cannot be ignored any more.
Obviously, since the end of World War II, United States has become a major strategic partner of East Asia and Pacific and in this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue held in early June US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explicitly spelt out what President Obama’s ‘Asian Pivot’ means in military strategy. According to Panetta United States will rebalance its naval fleet in favor of Asia-Pacific by 2020 and other military engagement to maintain its predominant economic and military influence in the region will go unabated.
Japan Korea and future of East Asian Security
Seen from the global perspectives, Asia is changing the world and in return is being changed too faster than any other continent. The predominant reason for this change has been the interconnected global economic system that has pulsated even smaller countries with unprecedented wealth accumulation, political influence and military strength. Similar is the case with challenges Asia faces in all its regions from Middle East to East Asia. Nowhere is so much division among people, their cultures, and level of development than in Asia. Strong paradoxes lie between the world’s oldest civilizations, cultures, traditional values and westernizations of their societies. Unfortunately Asia seems putting up a fractious course even among democracies less likely in other part of the World.
Simon Schama as quoted by Harry G. Gelber says that ‘histories never conclude they just pause’. And according to Gelber ‘Twenty-first Century is a deceptively neat place for such pause’ and such a historical pause is realized in East Asia with a brimming tension erupting among the three successful major Asian economies ranking first, second and fourth major economies – China, Japan and South Korea respectively.
Both Japan and South Korea have been the most important stability anchor for the East and South East Asia. They also have been the major strategic partner of United States in its Asian policy since 1945. The Korea-Japan GSOMIA as mentioned above would be a major focus in its defense strategy in Northeast Asia and its recently spelt out “Asian Pivot”. It would have allowed the US and its alliance partner in region work more effectively to meet the security threat that could arise any time from any quarters like North Korea. Failures to reach any such deal between Japan and South Korea would jeopardize both the political and economic stability of East Asia and would also harm U.S. strategic interests in the region, that by law and bilateral agreements have to provide defense shield to them and Taiwan as well.
President Lee Myung-bak when started his presidential term had rightly termed Japan as South Korea’s closest ally, tried hard to bring the bilateral relations to a new height but at last when the time to take bold decisions was approaching, he succumbed to the public pressure and could not rise above his party’s immediate political interests. Japan’s failures to stabilize the internal political situation within major political parties and government has also debilitated the political influence that World’s most successful economic and military power was expected to play globally.
According to Richard D Fisher – the renowned strategic analyst, earlier it was Europe that began major wars and was spread to Asia. But now as we are in an Asian Century if there will be a major war in World it will originate in Asia and will extend to Europe and America. If it is not terrorism indubitably, such wars will initially be fought in the strategic waters of Asia and most probably in East Asian and South East Asian waters where major economic and military powers are likely to follow a colliding course.
Therefore, East Asian countries mainly China and Japan with their ever increasing geo-political significance, if succeed in bringing stability in their waters, it in consequence will ensure larger internal political stability in the region. This in return will give rich dividends to their economy. A stable East Asia will work as a catalyst for a stable South East and South Asia with amazing results for gradual democratization of the region and its internal stability – that in particular can become a greatest achievement of human society with no parallel in history.
This article appeared at The Reporter Weekly and is reprinted with permission.