International Herald Tribune
East Asia's islands of contention
HONG KONG The formulaic visit to the United States by China's president, Hu Jintao, made the headlines last week, but more significant for Asian geopolitics was the near-clash between Japanese and South Korean vessels in the Sea of Japan (the East Sea, in South Korean and Chinese parlance).

Japan was about to send survey ships into an area claimed by South Korea, which responded by threatening to send patrol boats to confront them. The disputed seabed is close to a group of rocky islets called Dokdo by the South Koreans, who occupy them, and Takeshima by Japan, which also claims them.

Common sense ultimately prevailed and on Sunday the two sides agreed to resume talks about demarcating their border. But the incident was symptomatic not just of the rise of nationalism in the region but of the slow erosion of U.S. influence. For two U.S. allies and hosts of large U.S. garrisons to come close to blows would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The U.S. military presence is assumed to be the security blanket that smothers all potential national conflicts.

Meanwhile, a dispute between Japan and China over the seabed between them is gradually escalating. Earlier this month China declared an area close to a disputed zone northeast of Taiwan as off limits to shipping to enable conduct of gas exploration. Although Beijing subsequently backtracked a little, the issue will not go away.

Partly this is a question of economics - the area is viewed as a promising source of gas. But, as is the case with the South China Sea, nationalistic sentiments and strategic considerations are at least as important. The contentious area lies close to the Senkakus (Diaoyu to Chinese), seven barren rocks claimed by China but occupied by Japan and a focus of anti-Japanese agitation in China.

The rise of China is, indirectly, the cause of mutual aggravation in the region. China is taking an aggressive attitude, claiming the sea bed to the end of the continental shelf while Japan insists on a median line demarcation. But beyond the specifics of these disputes lies a reawakening of Japanese national consciousness in response to China's rhetoric of grievance against Japan, as well as the rise of its military power.

The less sure Japan is about the U.S. security blanket, the more it will tend to answer Chinese (and Korean) nationalism with its own.

Notable, too, is the unwillingness of East Asian countries to submit disputes to international or third- party arbitration, thus closing off the possibility of settlement any time in the foreseeable future. Tokyo once proposed that the Dokdo question be referred to the International Court of Justice, but Seoul declined.

There is a significant and disturbing contrast between this attitude and the willingness of Southeast Asian countries to submit at least some of their bilateral disputes to arbitration. Indonesia and Malaysia did so in the case of Sipadan and Ligitan, islands off the coast of Borneo, which the International Court awarded to Malaysia in 2002.

Even Malaysia and Singapore, which are forever having minor rows over land, water and air rights, agreed to submit dispute over one island, Pedra Branca, the site of a Singapore-operated lighthouse, to the International Court, whose judgment is expected in 2007.

It could be argued that these Southeast Asian disputes are relics of colonial history and not historical claims, like those that have made Dokdo and the Senkakus into symbols of nationalism and historical grievances. Nor do the islands submitted for arbitration have significant economic potential. But Southeast Asian countries have generally been able to negotiate seabed boundaries - between Thailand and Malaysia, for example - without too much rancor, putting exploitation of resources ahead of nationalistic issues.

The exception in Southeast Asia, of course, is China, which claims the whole South China Sea and declines to discuss the claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei on a multilateral basis.

In Northeast Asia the disputes have become symbols of national pride and thus not amenable to negotiation or arbitration. The best that can be hoped for is that all parties agree to differ but stop short at attempting to change the status quo, and agree to some pragmatic sharing of resources in the disputed areas.

For the time being, the prosperity that comes from economic cooperation is likely to keep these issues from boiling over. But should economic circumstances become less benign, and U.S. influence less pervasive, the dangers of escalation are all too apparent.