Heeding History in East Asia

SEOUL – Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese diplomats recently took to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly to reassert their countries’ positions on the territorial issues surrounding several small islands in the seas of East Asia. But the composed manner in which they delivered their remarks belied their countries’ long-simmering tensions over the islands, which have come to a near boil in the last few months.

At the center of one heated dispute, between China and Japan, are the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands. In September, Japan’s government announced its purchase of three of the islands from their private Japanese owner, inciting protests across China. Soon after, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels approached the islands to assert China’s sovereignty. These vessels have lately been joined by an increasing number of Chinese surveillance forces, which periodically enter the waters surrounding the islands, sometimes leading to direct confrontation with Japanese patrol ships.

With the situation threatening to escalate further, both sides need to contain the conflict quickly and restore the status quo. Indeed, the situation is all the more volatile in view of the political transition now underway in China.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Korea and Japan are engaged in a territorial standoff over the islets of Dokdo (called Takeshima in Japanese). In early August, Lee Myung-bak became the first South Korean president to visit the islets; Japan’s government responded by proposing to take the sovereignty issue to the International Court of Justice.