Asian Nationalism at Sea

CAMBRIDGE – Will war break out in the seas of East Asia? After Chinese and Japanese nationalists staged competing occupations of the barren landmasses that China refers to as the Diaoyu Islands and Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, angry demonstrators in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu chanted, “We must kill all Japanese.”

Likewise, a standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea led to protests in Manila. And a long planned step forward in cooperation between South Korea and Japan was torpedoed when the South Korean president visited the barren island that Korea calls Dokdo, Japan calls Takeshima, and the United States calls the Liancourt Rocks.

One should not be too alarmist. The US has declared that the Senkaku Islands (administered by the Okinawa Prefecture when it was returned to Japan in 1972) are covered by the US-Japan security treaty. Meanwhile, the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal has calmed down, and, while Japan recalled its ambassador from South Korea over the Dokdo incident, it is unlikely the two countries would come to blows.

But it is worth recalling that China used lethal force to expel Vietnamese from the Paracel Islands in 1974 and 1988. And China prevailed upon the Cambodian host of this year’s ASEAN summit to block a final communiqué that would have called for a code of conduct in the South China Sea – the first time in the ten-member association’s four-decade history that it failed to issue a communiqué.