Monday, April 04, 2005

Guide to "Insignificant Islands"

The recent brouhaha between South Korea and Japan over a pair of tiny islands in the middle of the Sea of Japan known as the Tokdo islands is just the latest flare up over lingering territorial disputes in East Asia. Protestors took to the streets of Seoul after Shimane prefecture, the Japanese province closest to the disputed islands, took it into its head to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their incorporation into the prefecture by passing an ordinance naming Feb. 22, 2005 as “Takeshima Day.” But from the northern tip of Hokkaido to the South China Sea, the Asian coastline is dotted with these “insignificant rocks” (my quotes) that roil relations between Asian countries.

In some cases the dispute involves competition over resources, but nationalism is usually at the heart of things. Often there is a larger subtext. For example, the latest controversy harks back to 1905, a pregnant date in Japan’s colonization of Korea. This makes it seem, in Korean eyes, that the Japanese are still nostalgic about their imperial past. Add to that mix, the never-ending arguments over school history textbooks and even Prime Minister Koizumi’s insistence on making annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Following is a guide to these disputed islands.

KURILS/NORTHERN TERRITORIES

This dispute involves four islands in the southern chain of the Kuril islands. They include the islands of Etorofu, Kunishiri, Shikotan and the Habomai rocks, collectively known as the “Northern Territories” in Japan. These are actually more than mere rocks. The first two are fairly substantial islands, and the Russians maintained an air base on Etorofu until recently. Through a series of treaties both before and after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Tokyo incorporated the entire Kuril chain and half of Sakhalin Island into the empire. Russian troops occupied all of these at the end of World War II and maintain that the Yalta agreements gave them control of the entire Kuril chain.

The Northern Territories dispute has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty even though the end of World War II is now 60 years away in the distant past. In previous negotiations Moscow has shown some willingness to return the two southern-most islands, Shikotan and the Habomais, but Tokyo has consistently held out for all four, claiming that they peacefully became part Japan as a result of treaties that set formal boundaries with Imperial Russia after Japan’s re-opening to the world in the mid to late 19th century.

Who is in control? Russia

The last big flare up: There have not been any major clashes over the dispute islands, although from time to time Russian border guard boats will arrest Japanese fishing boats that stray into territorial waters. In April 2000, a Russian patrol boat fired on a Japanese fishing vessel and seized its crew. In July 1999, three Japanese vessels were seized near the islands and the crews were held for several months.

What’s at stake? (Besides national pride): The coastal waters have valuable fisheries. However, the islands are too close to Japan to bring into play economic exclusion zones (EEZs). The main irritant is that Japanese boats often are hassled by the Russians when they stray into Russian territorial waters.

Current status: Quiescent. Every now and then the two sides seem close to settling the dispute. The Russians would sign a treaty recognizing their border as being north of Etorofu; Japan would lavish billions on loans and development projects in Siberia. Then Russians seems to get cold feet over the prospect of surrendering even a centimeter of the motherland. The two sides seemed close to a deal in 1998 when the late Japanese PM Keizo Obuchi went to Moscow proposing that the two countries sign a peace treaty by 2000 and demark boundaries by having Russia concede sovereignty while still administering the islands under it own authority. A formula would be found to share the resources. Nothing much came of this initiative. Russian President Vladimir Putin is supposed to visit Japan this year, but arrangements are stalled, which suggests that the issue of the Northern Territories is still a sticking point. That’s a pity since 2005 would be an auspicious year to put aside differences since it is the 100th anniversary of the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

TOKDO/TAKESHIMA

The Tokdo or “lonely islands” are comprised of two rocky islets in the middle of the Sea of Japan (which the Koreans call the East Sea) encompassing about a quarter of a square kilometer, or about the size of Hibiya Park in Tokyo. The Japanese call the group the Takeshima islands. The issue of who first discovered the islands is arcane but seems to favor Korea. They were formally incorporated into the Japanese Empire in 1905 and were then seen as being both beneficial for fishermen and having some military uses. Korea, then virtually a Japanese protectorate, was not in position to protest. At Japan’s surrender in 1945, the Allies proclaimed that Japanese sovereignty would be restricted to the four home islands: Honshu, Hokkaido; Kyushu and Shikoku and “such minor islands as we shall determine.” However they seem to have more or less forgotten the Tokdos during the Occupation and immediate post-Treaty years.

Who is in control? The Tokdos have been under South Korean protection since 1954. Seoul maintains a small garrison and lighthouse. It is equipped with a helicopter landing pad and a docking facility.

What’s at stake? Fertile fishing grounds, possible gas hydrates along the seabed.

Current status: Hot. The Tokdo issue is on the boil. It was sparked by the action of the Shimane prefectural assembly declared Feb. 22 as “Taleshima Day” honoring the 100th anniversary of its incorporation into the prefecture. Japan’s Ambassador to South Korea, Toshiyuki Takano poured oil on the fire by publicly proclaiming that the Tokdos belonged to Japan. Protestors marched on the embassy, burned Japanese flags. Sister cities cancelled their connections. The South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon canceled a planned trip to Japan. Seoul recently announced that it would not support Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council because it could not be trusted. Pyongyang also got in a few licks too. Korea-Japan “Friendship Year” isn’t getting off to a good start.

SENKAKU/DIAOYU

The Senkaku comprise another small group of uninhabited rocky islands in the East China Sea, claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China. The Chinese claim to have discovered what they call the Daioyu islands in the 14th century. But they passed into Japanese hands in 1895 after China ceded Taiwan to Japan. Beijing argues that they should have been returned to China along with Taiwan after the end of World War II. At the San Francisco peace conference in 1952 the Senkakus were considered part of Okinawa, which for the next 20 years was administered separately from Japan. In 1972 Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukus islands were formally incorporated into Japan. Shortly thereafter, Beijing made its first preliminary claim.

Who is in control? Japan does not garrison the islands, which have no permanent inhabitants, but its coast guard will apprehend anyone who approaches the islands closely or attempts to land.

The last big flare up. In 1996 a group of right-wing students called the Japan Youth Association erected a makeshift lighthouse on one of the islands. That was the spark for a huge confrontation, as hundreds of Chinese activists set out from Hong Kong and Taiwan in boats to stake their claim to the islands. It was the occasion for an enormous burst of jingoism in the Hong Kong press. When activists snuck past the Japanese Coast Guard and planted, side by side, the flags of China and Taiwan, the picture took up the entire front page of the South China Morning Post. You would have thought it was the biggest landing since the Invasion of Normandy. Activist David Chan became an instant martyr when he drowned after jumping into waters off the islands.

Subtext. In Hong Kong democrats seized on the Diaoyu issue to burnish their credentials as patriots in the months leading up to the handover of Hong Kong to China. Beijing tended to play down the matter so not to inflame relations with Japan.

What is at stake? A lot. The East China Sea is one of the last, great unexplored sources of resources located near large markets. It is thought to contain billions of barrels of oil, but exploration has been stymied by the boundary dispute. Until recently Tokyo refused to allow exploration in the disputed areas since it believed it might affect any future resolution of the boundary dispute or an agreement to divvy up the resources. But China has begun drilling near the disputed boundary, and Japan in April announced that it too would grant exploratory drilling rights in the disputed waters. Tokyo claims that Beijing had shown no interest in the islands until the first geological surveys in the 1970s indicated the region’s petroleum producing potential

Current status. Simmering. In February this year the family that had owned the largest island, where the lighthouse is located, quietly transferred the title to Japan. On Feb. 9 Tokyo formally notified The Chinese embassy that the islands would be administered directly by the coast guard. Meanwhile, a Chinese submarine was detected in Senkaku waters late last year in apparent violation of the agreement reached in 2001 that the two sides would notify each other of any incursions into areas in which the other side “takes and interest.” The Senkaku/Daioyu dispute is one of those problems “left over from history” that the Chinese would like to put off resolving until sometime in the future. Unfortunately, the imperative of finding more energy to feed growing economies may make that impossible.

THE SPRATLYS

The Spatlys is a collective name for hundreds of atolls and tiny islands dotted throughout the South China Sea. They cluster in two main groups: the northern one is called the Paracels. These islands are claimed either in total or in part by six nations. China asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over all of the islands, indeed by some reckoning over all of the South China Sea, which it claims has been Chinese territory “since ancient times.” Chinese maps show the national boundary looping in a giant U around the South China Sea, stretching almost as far as Indonesian waters. Beijing has never seriously pressed a claim to the waters themselves and such a claim would never be recognized.

Who is in control? Of the 150 or so atolls in the southern Spratly group, 44 are occupied as follows:

Vietnam 25
Philippines 8
China 7
Malaysia 3
Taiwan 1
Brunei 0

Taiwan occupies the largest island in the group. Itu Abu is 1.4 km long and 400 meters wide.

The last big flare up. China and Vietnam clashed in 1988 in the “Battle of Fiery Cross Reef.” The engagement left about 75 Vietnamese killed and three of their patrol boats burning. In 1996 the Spratlys again made news when China built what it called a “fisherman’s shelter” on Mischief Reef claimed by the Philippines. Manila took no action other than to complain. But the issue roiled Southeast Asia for several months before fading out of the headlines.

What’s at stake? The Spratlys are often described as being potentially oil rich, although there are some experts who think the deposits, if they are there, are not very promising. Also important are questions of navigation through this key international sea-lane.

Current status. Quiescent. Not much is heard about the Spratlys these days. China, which is bent on extending its commercial and political influence throughout the region, including establishing forming a free trade zone with ASEAN, doesn’t seem in the mood to make any provocative moves. Everyone else is standing pat.




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72 Comments:

Blogger IJ said...

Some feedback on disputed territories. In the present global structure, the advantage in disputes is surely with a country that sits at the top political table - ie, has permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council with a veto. Because of this power, existing members (5) would not want to lose, or even to weaken, their political status. However, economics may have become more important than politics.

Secondly, I see that both offshore China (Taiwan) and mainland China are making separate claims on the same territories. This business of one China, two systems is very confusing.

Finally, there's a huge number of sovereign states in the world - and growing. Nearly 200 so far.

April 5, 2005 at 4:11 AM  
Blogger IJ said...

From the posting above: "However, economics may have become more important than politics."

Signs of this evolution are in the press today: "The Japanese government has asked Beijing to guarantee the protection of its vast economic interests in China. . . Tokyo has been pressing Beijing to sign an investment protection agreement that would bolster the institutional framework for preventing damage to Japanese interests. . . Some Japanese businesses, particularly manufacturers, say that China's pragmatic desire for investment and foreign expertise overrides political considerations." http://news.ft.com/cms/s/bed55c62-a5bd-11d9-b67b-00000e2511c8.html

But present global governance isn't evolving. It is still geared to national politics, not the global economy.

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Among the numerous historical documents showing that Dokdo has been an integral part of Korea since ancient times, the following are the most important official documents:

Samguksagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is an official history book written in 1145 A.D. on the Three Kingdoms of Korea, namely the Silla (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.), Goguryeo (37 B.C. to 668 A.D.), and Baekje (18 B.C. to 660 A.D.) kingdoms. This book, edited by Kim Bu?sik, a historian and the then prime minister of the Goryeo Kingdom, contains the story of the conquest of Usan?guk in 512 A.D. by Isabu, a general of the Silla Dynasty under the reign of King Jijeung.

In spite of many proofs, japanese don't stop insisting.
They still demand dokdo is japanese called Dakeshima.
However, already dakeshima turned out another island.
This happening will be occured lots of times by japanese government, until they
feel ashamed.

How come do they want korean's small island dokdo.
Japanese government approved wrong history text book, so no more rightous and
truth in japan.
When Poor japanese will be isolated someday, but they keep insisting or trust japanese
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