By: Andy Yee

It is ironic that the prosperity and economic interdependence of East Asia are littered with territorial disputes stretching from the northeast to southwest. Just as recent tensions caused by territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands appeared to be receding, on Nov. 1, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the Kurile Islands, which both Russia and Japan claim, the first ever for a Russian leader.

Added to that, in July, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton proclaimed in the Asean Regional Forum that the US “has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” which is viewed by China as its ‘core interest’ and a purely bilateral matter with its Asean disputants. In September, Japan released a Chinese fishing boat captain operating around the Senkakus after 17 days of detention.

In her 2007 book Cold War Frontiers in the Asia-Pacific, Kimie Hara pointed out that all of these disputes could be traced to the peace arrangement at the end of the Pacific War. Japan renounced territories acquired under its vast empire, but did not specify to which country it renounced these territories. These problems were unacknowledged in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, as the US purposely lined up these wedges between communist regimes and regional allies in its containment strategy, forming the so-called Acheson Line.

Sixty years on, now that the Cold War has become history, the Acheson Line still divides regional states. Hara reminded us of the common Cold War origin of these problems. Recent actions by states demonstrate that so long as these issues are addressed within frameworks limited to states directly involved in the disputes, they are unlikely to be resolved.

The complicated maritime geography of East Asia, when combined with the self-interests of each state to create the most favorable outcome for itself, means that these disputes are truly related and can breed distrust from non-involved states.

Inter-connectedness of the disputes
The potential of spillover is demonstrated by the fact that when Japan was perceived as ‘softening’ by releasing the Chinese captain, Russian president Medvedev soon after decided to visit the Northern Territories. Russia’s exploitation of Japan’s diplomatic weaknesses raised political tension with Japan, which viewed China and Russia as teaming up on territorial claims.

It is also noteworthy how Japan, driven by self-interest, employs inconsistent rhetoric towards disputes in the Senkakus and Kuriles. The Kurile Islands are under Russian control. To have any hope of claiming the islands back, they must first be established internationally as disputed territories. Hence the continued Japanese protests against Russia’s occupation. By contrast, Japan practically administers the Senkaku Islands, and it does not even recognize the islands as disputed territories.

The longer it can maintain the status quo, the more likely its control will be internationally recognized through the principle of ‘acquisitive prescription.’

China’s claims in the South and East China Seas are equally inconsistent. It applies the principle of natural prolongation in the East China Sea to claim the entire continental shelf up to the Okinawa Trough, while opposing the application of the same principle by Malaysia and Vietnam in the South China Sea.

As seen in their Cold War origins and contemporary developments, these disputes are mutually related. If we are to stop this trend of stiffening postures and rising political tensions, a multilateral solution would be the way forward. The US reaffirmation of its position in the South China Sea, namely the freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce, may well serve as a starting point to pressure China to make the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea legally binding, and eventually expand it to the whole of East Asia.

In 2011, the US and Russia, on invitation from Asean, are expected to attend the East Asia Summit as members. With all key disputant states included in this regional dialogue, it would be the ideal opportunity of preventive diplomacy for regional maritime stability.

The role of the US
Doubts remain, however, over real US intentions to mediate these disputes. Just as the Acheson Line was constructed for the purpose of containing communist regimes, its contemporary significance is for the US to constrain the rise of China. Recall Henry Kissinger’s comments on Nixon’s US-China-USSR triangular diplomacy: In the analysis of Nixon and his advisers, so long as China had more to fear from the Soviet Union than it did from the United States, China’s self-interest would impel it to cooperate with the United States… America’s bargaining position would be stronger when America was closer to both communist giants than either was to the other.

Substitute the Soviet Union for China, and China for its neighbors such as Japan and Asean, and you get to where we are today. If the risk to the US was an ideological one in the past, then today it is Beijing’s ‘calculative security strategy:’ one that combines economic growth and good international relations with continued military modernization. For the US, these disputes could be played up from time to time to counter China’s charm offensive.

However, while US power has declined, Chinese power still falls short. If these disputes are viewed as zero-sum game in bilateral contexts, then linking them with other agendas might lead to possibilities that have not been explored, and the US is uniquely well placed to lead the process. Its political and military power is the last resort for ensuring that disputes do not escalate to alarming levels. Asean states rush to bandwagon with China economically while wanting the US to play the role of security guarantor.

China meanwhile needs the US to prevent Japanese remilitarization. In turn, China’s naval modernization is used to justify continued the US military presence in Okinawa. US attitudes towards security issues with Russia, such as NATO expansion and US presence in Central Asia, could also affect Russian posture in Asia.

The chain of disputes, as a Cold War legacy, is like a chronic disease that might shadow the region for the foreseeable future. The US, as its primary architect, could either use its influence as an offshore balancer to help achieve mutual concessions through a multilateral context, or go down the path of Kissinger’s realpolitik and use them for political bargaining, risking unpredictable escalating feedback between these disputes.

Andy Yee is a Hong Kong-based writer and a former researcher for the political section of the European Union Delegation to China in Beijing. He blogs at Global Voices Online.