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Overcoming East Asia’s Sovereignty Disputes

BRUSSELS – China’s recent elevation of its claim to the Diaoyu Islands to a “core interest” has made the prospect of resolving its sovereignty dispute with Japan, which governs the islands, even trickier. Indeed, the recent publication by the official People’s Daily of two Chinese scholars’ commentary questioning Japan’s sovereignty over even Okinawa suggests that the authorities have scant interest in ending the dispute anytime soon. So, with China hardening its multiple sovereignty claims throughout the South and East China Seas, can any mechanism be found to resolve these conflicts peacefully?

Disputes over territorial sovereignty are, perhaps, the thorniest of all diplomatic disagreements. They can seem intractable, because they are directly connected not only to national pride, but also to national security.

So it is no surprise that governments are usually reluctant to take even the smallest steps toward resolving such disputes. They fear not only domestic political backlash, but also the prospect that their adversary, or adversaries, will interpret a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, and thus become even more demanding.

The ongoing sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas – involving China, Taiwan, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia – are particularly poisonous, because they also carry a heavy burden of historical grievance.