When Dmitry Medvedev visited the Kuril Islands, first as president and then as prime minister, international commentators denounced Russia for its tactless conduct and imperial ambitions, as Japan considers these islands its Northern Territories. Recently South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a similar move when he paid his first visit to an island claimed by Tokyo, causing tensions to flare between the two countries. However, analysts approached this case delicately, focusing on the complex historical disputes at issue and the various ways to resolve them, whereas Russia’s conduct was denounced as expansionist. Apparently, everything depends on your point of view.
Territorial disputes have entered a new round of escalation in Asia. In addition to Tokyo and Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing also find themselves at odds. Nationalists from Japan and China have landed on a disputed island one after another, stirring protests in both countries. Tensions between China and the Philippines have also been running high for several months over a territorial dispute. The total number of territorial disputes in East and Southeast Asia is in the double digits. Russian-Japanese discord is just one small piece in the complex mosaic of regional relations, fractured and reassembled throughout history.
None of these conflicts are new. They are at the center of attention now because the entire Asia-Pacific region has become the center of global events and is considered the main strategic arena of the 21st century.
Ironically, many of these enduring conflicts trace back to when the region was on the periphery of world events relative to the Euro-Atlantic space.
After World War II, the great powers were very meticulous in negotiating the limits of what was permissible in Europe. This applied to the delimitation of borders as well. It was clear that if some borders remained vague or disputed, this would inevitably lead to a major conflict, and any escalation in the era of the U.S.-Soviet global standoff could be fatal. In principle, the same rules of the game also applied to Asia, but at that time the region was not as important as Europe and all issues were resolved with less care.
As a result, Asia is now embroiled in a host of conflicts. Previously, they were frozen by the steadying influence of Cold War ideological confrontation. With its disappearance, perennial considerations of national prestige and competing economic interests moved to the fore.
Ideological affinity, allied relations, or the absence of both do not necessarily exert any influence on the opposing sides. Thus, Japan and South Korea are staunch U.S. allies and, therefore, are allies themselves in the larger U.S. military-political sphere in East Asia. But this fact does not magically resolve their territorial disputes. Moreover, Seoul enjoys the moral support of its greatest enemy, Pyongyang, because nationalism and a shared dislike of Japan override all else. And while Taiwan expresses no solidarity with mainland China in its territorial dispute with Japan, it also does not recognize Japan’s jurisdiction.
Local disputes between the Pacific countries are rapidly turning into a global problem because the United States, the world’s only super power, can’t help but be involved in them by definition. China is involved in most disputes and, hence, its opponents may rely on America’s support. For Washington, the decision on whether to support them will be a reflection of its global status. It will show whether the United States is capable of playing the role of universal patron for those in need.
That said, the majority of these conflicts are extremely confusing and intractable, and a decision to support one of the sides will have less to do with historical truth than raw politics. This creates a vicious circle for the United States that will aggravate disagreements with China. Washington will find it difficult to break it.
In light of the global shift of influence to the east, Russia simply cannot ignore its position as a Pacific power, and its presence in Asia as a major player is vital. The only way to achieve this status is to use the advantages of its “transitional” position as a Euro-Asian power.
Moscow has a unique opportunity to apply the European experience of conflict resolution to the Asia-Pacific region. In the 21st century, Asia may have to deal with the same challenges that Europe had to face in the 20th century when it was the center of the world. Russia paid a steep price for this experience. And as an integral part of both the European and Pacific regions, it carries enough weight in Asia to make a difference, but not too much. In other words, it is heeded but not feared.
To boost its influence, Russia will have to be much more active in Asia and orientate itself not only toward China, for all of its importance for Russia, but to the whole spectrum of interests and opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region – from Japan, South Korea and the United States to Indonesia and Australia.
A proactive and creative policy aimed at settling Russia’s long-standing dispute with Tokyo would be a downpayment on future success on a regional scale. Concessions won’t do, as this would only aggravate the situation by confirming that all territorial disputes are a zero-sum game. This will cause both parties to dig their heels in, believing that only undisputed victory will suffice. However, the European experience of the second half of the 20th century, in which opposing sides were able to move towards mutually acceptable solutions, could help Asia avoid the disastrous mistakes of Europe.