By Ken Jimbo, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Ken Jimbo is an associate professor in the Faculty of Policy Management at Keio University, Japan. The views expressed are his own.
Contested territorial claims over the Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in China), Takeshima (Dokdo in Korea) and the Northern Territories (call the South Kuril Islands in Russia) appear to have sparked a resurgence of nationalism in Northeast Asia – and left a headache for Japanese policymakers.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit this month to Takeshima/Dokdo was an unpleasant surprise to Japanese leaders and the public generally, especially as Lee had been widely seen as a pragmatic leader who carefully avoided politicization of history and territorial issues with Tokyo. But Lee had already started to press Japan on the sensitive topic of war-time comfort women, contributing to an atmosphere that has served to undermine the strategic cooperation that has been pursued for years by foreign and defense communities in both countries.
The tensions have manifested themselves in a number of ways, including the abandoning by Seoul of the South Korea of the Japan-Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Lee’s careless “insult” of the Japanese emperor when he said Emperor Akihito should apologize sincerely for Japan’s war time behavior if he wants to visit South Korea. It seems unlikely that progress will be made on repairing ties until Lee’s term as president finishes this year.
But Japan has also lately seen a resurgence in tensions with China. Indeed, despite it being almost two years since a collision between a Japan Coast Guard vessel and a Chinese fishing trawler, that incident still haunts Tokyo and Beijing, and little progress has been made in developing an effective crisis management mechanism.
The September 2010 incident – which saw the fishing vessel crew detained by Japan and subsequent suggestions of retaliation by China (which some believe included China’s halting of rare earth metal exports to Japan) – was evidence of how quickly things can spiral out of control between Tokyo and Beijing. It was interesting to see, therefore, Tokyo’s speed in sending back 14 Hong Kong-based activists who landed on Senkaku this month compared with the 2012 incident. Yet this de-escalation can’t disguise the patchwork nature of crisis management between the two, and there will undoubtedly be more fishing boats, activists and scientific vessels venturing into these waters in future. How will the two countries react? And what if one of those vessels is armed?
The breakdown in trust is particularly frustrating and unnecessary between Japan and South Korea – the two both have an interest in better strategic relations. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose a far more critical and immediate threat to both nations, and Seoul and Tokyo should be increasing intelligence sharing and policy coordination as the Kim Jong-un regime looks to consolidate power. Boosting relations between Japan and South Korea would be a significant deterrent against North Korean provocations, and it will be important that whoever succeeds Lee is able to work closely with Tokyo once election fever has eased – both governments must take constructive steps to allow cooler heads to prevail.
Japan-China tensions may be harder to address, not least because the recent escalating tensions derive in large part from the failure of the two sides to develop a dispute management system that is in keeping with the obvious power shift taking place. China’s rise, both economic and military, inevitably allows it greater room to challenge the status quo. This means the traditional, silent approach to handling the Senkaku issue is obsolete. As a result, the two countries’ governments must make it an urgent priority to hold more frequent talks on maritime confidence building, mutual assurance, and the creation of dispute management mechanisms.
The other problem is the gradual breakdown in personal communication channels between Tokyo and Beijing. The good old days of close and longstanding person-to-person, party-to-party relations have faded, and genuine Japan hands in China, and China hands in Japan, have lost influence over foreign policy. This was underscored in the 2010 collision, when Chinese officials seemed unable to find an effective Japanese counterpart they could relay their concerns to, to prevent an escalation.
If these three countries want to avoid future flashpoints escalating, they will need to work harder on building personal and institutional networks. Failure to do so could mean that any future incidents spiral out of control.