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Asia needs wisdom to contain disputes, say experts

Publication Date : 12-09-2012


Experts stress leaders’ role for peace, warn of nationalist zeal


From the Kuril Islands down to the Spratly Islands, territorial conflicts stemming from legacies of colonialism and world wars continue to haunt East Asia, hampering cooperation in the emerging centre of global security and prosperity.

Given their deep-rooted nature and high stakes in security and resources, countries settling the disputes once and for all seems out of the question, experts say.

The most plausible option, they suggest, would be to manage the status quo. And doing so could be possible if national leaders refrain from politicking and provocation, bureaucrats push cooperation, and civil society seeks common ground in a project to move the region forward.

“The problem is compounded when officials who face political elections or leadership changes curry favour with the most hard-line nationalist sentiment,” Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia Programme at the centre for a New American Security, told The Korea Herald.

“In succumbing to nationalist zeal, individual governments rapidly deplete their own finite good will with their neighbours.…For now, the best that can be done is managing rather than resolving these disputes.”

The region has been ensnared in maritime disputes in which multiple claimants can hardly back down, with vast amounts of oil, natural gas and other untapped resources at stake.

In particular, the spats involving South Korea, China and Japan have caused much concern in the region and beyond, prompting calls, most recently from Washington, for restraint and reconcilliation.

Tension has flared up anew this week as Japan’s cabinet on Monday decided to nationalise three of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims, calling them Diaoyu.

Beijing responded angrily to the move and declared that the islands were the baseline of China’s territorial sea.

On Tuesday, Japan also placed advertisements in scores of local newspapers, claiming Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo as part of its territory, further worsening the bilateral ties strained over Japan’s failure to recognise its colonial past.

Washington apparently feels uneasy as the regional disputes remain unabated amid growing calls from its allies and partners such as Vietnam and the Philippines to back their claims.

The US, which is rebalancing its policy priorities to maintain its preponderance in the strategically vital region, has stressed freedom of navigation and access to “common goods,” sending a tacit warning against what it calls China’s anti-access / area denial strategy.

However, America apparently does not want a head-on collision with China at a time when it is tightening its belt to reduce its national debt, which has snowballed during a decade of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively together to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last Monday during her visit to Indonesia.

In the Southeast Asian region, most of the salient disputes are concentrated on the South China Sea where China claims up to 30 billion tons of crude oil is buried. It is also where the world’s crucial sea lines of communication, including those through the vital chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca, converge.

Some experts draw a comparison between the current East Asia and the hundreds of years of conflicts in Europe since the modern nation-state system based on territorial sovereignty emerged with the 1648 Westphalia Peace Treaty. The Westphalia pact was signed to end the Thirty Years’ War, giving rise to the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. The religious war, which involved most major European countries, was largely driven from the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism.

The European history since then revolved around territorial and nationalist conflicts that came to a head following the French Revolution in the late 18th century, taking an epochal turning point in the formation of the European Union in the 1990s. Although it is currently faltering in the face of financial and governance-related challenges, Europe has been moving toward integration, ushering in what historians call the post-modern era.

Though historical evaluations vary with some scholars disputing the assessment based on historical developmental stages of the states, many share the view that Asia, toward which the centre of power is shifting, should devise a way to bury the hatchet and move forward for its shared goals ― peace and prosperity.

Origins of conflict

Most maritime disputes in East Asia originated from imperial powers’ decolonisation process following World War II, during which they apparently neglected clear maritime demarcations for their past colonies.

The absence of post-war deals engaging the major wartime victims of Korea and China is another contributing factor, experts pointed out.

“After World War II, the allied powers and Japan failed to unequivocally make territorial distinctions over minor islands that imperial Japan incorporated as part of its territory,” said Lee Seok-woo, professor at the Law School of Inha University.

“Aware of Japan’s strategic value in its policy toward Asia, Washington also took a stance in favour of Tokyo (during the signing of the treaty).”

Japan inked the San Francisco Peace Treaty with 48 allied countries in 1951 to officially end World War II and allocate compensation to the victims of its aggression. But Seoul and Beijing did not participate in the signing.

At the time of the post-war deal, Seoul and Beijing were not in a position to assert their claims as each was struggling to cope with its domestic crisis. In 1950, the Korean War broke out, ending in a truce three years later. At around the same time, China was still reeling from a civil war that divided the country into two ― mainland China and Taiwan.

“The disputes still rage on as its neighbours, such as Korea and China, could not hold Japan (to account) for what they suffered from during its aggression at the time,” said Chung Jae-jeong, president of the Northeast Asian History Foundation.

“As communist forces had quickly expanded, the US had to readjust its initial plan to completely weaken Japan and stamp out its militarism. For America, Japan was sort of a breakwater against the communist tide. Thus, it could not hold Japan thoroughly responsible.”

Seoul and Beijing, which had long focused on internal growth, have begun looking outwardly and become more assertive to secure their maritime interests. This has led to more strident conflicts with Japan unrepentant about its wartime atrocities on its neighbours, experts said.

“Over the past five decades, the status of each nation (Korea, China and Japan) has dramatically changed. China has risen as (one half of) the G2 while Korea has entered the G20,” said Chung.

“With their enhanced standing, the two have raised their voices, calling for the need to rectify the post-war arrangements where both were voiceless while caught in domestic affairs such as civil war and national division.”

The lack of well-organised regional institutions was another factor for the region’s failure to effectively defuse tensions from relentless maritime rows.

“The fact that we are not yet clear about where to go (in the region) is shown in the plethora of organisations. There is Apec which is transpacific. There is Asean Plus Three, which does not include the US There is the East Asia Summit…” former US top diplomat Henry Kissinger said during a lecture here in 2010.

“This mixture of institutions shows that there is no guiding concept.”

Possible solutions

Amid a string of disputes, leaders should remain cool-headed, explore what would best serve their nations’ long-term interests and exert their political and diplomatic finesse rather than making an emotional, nationalistic response, experts said.

“Statesmen should adopt the do-no-harm approach of avoiding an escalation of tensions by taking unilateral actions in areas of dispute,” said Dr. Cronin of the CNAS.

“They should then begin to unpack the disputes, finding areas where collaborative approaches might be agreed upon, without making definitive decisions over sovereignty. This may not be satisfying, but it is realistic.”

After all, cooperation among states over the intractable disputes is possible when states have confidence in one another, Cronin pointed out, stressing the importance of trust-building measures.

“Cooperative schemes have foundered on distrust…Let’s admit that we cannot eradicate this distrust, but we can contain it,” he said. “What is needed to move forward is a mixture of realism, confidence-building measures, transparency and restraint.”

Some experts stress that states mired in disputes should conduct joint research to find “historical common ground” which will help improve mutual understanding and defuse tension stemming from misunderstandings.

Kim Tae-hyun of Chung-Ang University floated the idea of introducing a comprehensive moratorium on a series of territorial disputes in the region until the concerned countries are capable enough to work out compromises.

The moratorium could be negotiated through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which involves the US, he said, noting that Washington needs to exert its diplomatic clout.

But some experts say the US may not be an effective mediator over the sensitive issues.

“The problem is that the US cannot be the ‘honest broker’ in the region, and indeed no state or entity can, not even the UN This is because each has played some role in modern history in the development of the region and as such played a key role in bringing about the status quo that is unsatisfactory to all parties,” said Balbina Hwang, political science professor at Georgetown University.


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