Old nationalistic and geopolitical undercurrents are bubbling to the surface in the East China Sea. Japan's threat to use force to defend contested Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands against Chinese aggression, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's first public visit to the Korean-controlled, Japanese-claimed Dokdo (Takeshima in Japanese) Island, and China's expanded territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and recent eruption of nationalist rage in major Chinese cities, together put America's new strategic pivot policy toward Asia at risk.
That is exactly what has been happening in the South China Sea, where tensions have been simmering for quite some time now. In recent months China's aggressive moves over more than 40 islands in the South China Sea have directly challenged Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations and set off a tit-for-tat between China and Southeast Asian states.
But "the stakes are much higher in East Asia because you have bigger countries in close proximity, and the conflicts are more direct and emotional," says Kent Calder, director of Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. And "boasting the world's second-strongest destroyer fleet and cutting-edge command and control systems," writes Kosuke Takahashi, Tokyo correspondent for Jane's Defense Weekly, "Tokyo's navy presents a much more formidable foe than Beijing's rivals in the South China Sea."
"The increasingly shrill war of words over disputed islands between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, including China and South Korea," reports Martin Fackler of New York Times, "is potentially more explosive. Unlike in the South China Sea, where the frictions center on competition for natural resources, the East Asian island disputes are more about history, rooted in lingering-and easily ignited-anger over Japan's brutal dominance decades ago."
The dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands has long been a predicament in their bilateral relations. The Japanese-South Korean dispute over the Takeshima (Dokdo) Island has also been a provocative issue in the Tokyo-Seoul bilateral ties. Recent tensions between Tokyo and Beijing and between Tokyo and Seoul, however, demonstrate how quickly these historic disputes may disrupt peace and stability of the entire region. "There is a real possibility that if diplomacy fails, there will be a war in East Asia," warns Kazuhiko Togo, former head of the Treaties Bureau of Japanese Foreign Ministry.
East Asia is increasingly becoming a region of contradictions. Economically, it has become an economic powerhouse in the world economy. Together three economies of China, Japan, and South Korea constitute more than 20 percent of world economic output and 70 percent of total GDP in Asia. Measured in terms of Purchasing Power Parity, the combined GDP of these three East Asian nations is already higher than that of European Union. Economic growth in the region, particularly in China, has fuelled talks about the coming of an Asian century. Strategically, however, there is serious doubt as to whether the region's growing economic prosperity will be accompanied by a regional political stability.
Danger is simmering in East Asia's troubled waters. Competing territorial claims and rapid arms buildup in East Asia are recipes for regional conflict. Increasingly, East Asia's three major powers are finding themselves between rocks and a hard place in the East China Sea. Worse, as Eoh Jin-joo of South Korea's Arirang News noted, "politicians from all three countries are trying to use these conflicts as a way to stir up nationalism, rather than trying to resolve and put an end to them."
Historical animosities and raw emotions are resurfacing in Japan, South Korea and China, and the United States' two most important allies in Asia are facing off against each other. Recent developments in East Asia are causing unwelcome complications for Washington's "Asia pivot" policy.
Territorial disputes in East Asia represent a much more significant challenge to U.S. national security interests in the Asia-Pacific region than conflicts in the South China Sea. "The ramifications for the United States," as Martin Fackler points out, "are also potentially more troubling. The United States has been urging Japan and South Korea to pick up more of the burden of defending against China and North Korea, but the countries' latest standoff over islets that sit between them contributed to South Korea's decision to back out of an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan. An even bigger risk for the United States is that it could be dragged into an armed conflict between China and Japan, which it is obligated by treaty to defend."
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.