Diplomatic tension surrounding the claims of territorial sovereignty over islands in Northeast Asia is at a high point and seems to be far from coming to a lull.
The potential for limited military conflict around disputed islands is a primary concern to regional countries, and also to the U.S. In addition to the military concern, the economic and social impact — although less noticed now — might turn into a bigger concern for related countries.
The rise and expansion of territorial nationalism in the region brings up a new strategic context for U.S. leadership in Asia that was not taken into consideration thoroughly enough when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama adopted a policy of rebalance toward Asia early this year.
It is hard to predict to what extent the rise of territorial nationalism will influence U.S. leadership in Asia. However, the U.S. government cannot avoid taking its responsible role in reaching a peaceful resolution for the disputed islands.
Renouncing territorial sovereignty is by no means acceptable to any nation. The history of armed conflicts reflects how difficult it is to resolve nationalistic disputes in a peaceful, diplomatic manner. As South Korea, Japan and China are up for a leadership change, the public demonstrations with regard to territorial sovereignty are leading to political division. Now the Obama administration is claiming it has not taken a position on the sovereignty of the disputed islands. On the other hand, the U.S. government has made strenuous efforts to establish a diplomatic context for discussing and resolving territorial issues. South Korea, Japan and China do not oppose such a U.S. diplomatic stance — in principle. But how will these countries cope with U.S. diplomatic leadership?
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently visited China and Japan, during which he demanded a peaceful resolution of the Japan-China tension over the disputed islands. In response, Chinese leaders warned of the possibility of further action if necessary, including an assertive message for U.S. noninvolvement.
Meanwhile, after Panetta’s visit to Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda spoke about considering sending a special envoy to China to explain Japan’s decision to nationalize the disputed islands, known as the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese). In the aftermath of Panetta’s visit, Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said that if Japan is provoked by China in the disputed islands, the U.S. defense treaty with Japan obligates the U.S. to defend Japan. By looking at this shuttle diplomacy among the U.S., Japan and China, it seems much more difficult and complex for the U.S. to act than for it to remain neutral when it comes to territorial disputes.
In regard to economic changes in the region, the Chinese boycott of Japanese products has become widespread across the nation with the rise of anti-Japanese sentiment, and even governmental organizations are joining the boycott. The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency recently speculated that an anti-Japanese boycott in China would contribute to boosting the sales of Korean products in China and estimated that the resulting revenue would amount to more than $5 billion over the short term.
In the long term, however, such tension would impede negotiations over a trilateral free-trade pact among South Korea, Japan and China. After all, the changing nature of interdependent regional trade — not only among South Korea, Japan and China, but also with other countries — is facing significant uncertainty.
Recently, representatives from South Korea, Japan and China poured out their aggressive and stubborn positions over territorial claims at the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Tension over the claims is turning into an international agenda beyond Northeast Asia.
Under these complexities and uncertainties surrounding the rise of territorial nationalism in Northeast Asia, the U.S. is advancing its grand military, diplomatic and economic shift to Asia. Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney have similar perceptions of U.S. vital interests in Asia and engagement with the rise of China. In reality, the U.S. government could not be free from diplomatic discussion toward resolving the territorial issues. Changes in the balance of diplomacy among Northeast Asian countries might seriously damage U.S. leadership in Asia. Furthermore, how the United States deals with these countries will lead other Asian countries to doubt the U.S. strategic intent of promoting and preserving peace and stability in Asia.
Jinho Park, a legislative aide to South Korean legislator Jinha Hwang of the ruling Saenuri Party and a nonresident fellow of the Korea Defense & Security Forum in Seoul.