North East Asia's Undercurrents of Conflict
North East Asia's Undercurrents of Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 108 / Asia 4 minutes

North East Asia's Undercurrents of Conflict

Shifting power relations in North East Asia are spurring rising nationalism in China, Japan and South Korea, aggravating long-standing disputes over territorial claims and differing interpretations of history.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

Shifting power relations in North East Asia are spurring rising nationalism in China, Japan and South Korea, aggravating long-standing disputes over territorial claims and differing interpretations of history. Failure to bridge these differences could raise tensions and impede efforts to tackle the security and economic challenges confronting the region. While finding lasting solutions will be difficult, a series of practical confidence and institution-building steps should be taken immediately by the three states to keep the simmering disputes from boiling over.

The economic rise of China, generational shifts in South Korea, and the waning of Japan’s economic dominance have spurred xenophobia that occasionally spills over into violence. All three need to work together to address their major challenges in security, non-proliferation, energy procurement and environmental protection, but North East Asia remains one of the least integrated regions, with no effective institutions to address its common political and security problems.

A number of events in 2005 illustrate the simmering tensions. In March, South Korean demonstrators cut off their fingers in protest over Japanese claims to a pair of small islets. The next month, Chinese demonstrators attacked Japanese businesses and diplomatic missions over a Japanese history textbook, while in June, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun spent most of a two-hour meeting discussing history, rather than current issues. China began drilling for oil in September in a disputed area of the East China Sea, over Japanese protests, and in November, as a result of the visit Koizumi paid to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are among the millions of honoured dead, President Hu Jintao refused to have a one-on-one meeting with Koizumi on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Most territorial disputes in the region are over uninhabited islands and partially submerged rocks, whose status remains ambiguous under international law, including Tokdo/Takeshima, jointly claimed by South Korea and Japan; Senkaku/Diaoyu, jointly claimed by China, Taiwan, and Japan; and the Kuril/Northern Territories, jointly claimed by Russia and Japan. The importance of most of these lies not so much in their intrinsic value, but in the surrounding economic zones. The best way to address the problems, therefore, would be to leave aside territorial issues and focus on joint exploitation and, as appropriate, conservation of the natural resources. A lesser, but longer-term, dispute involves the area in North East China (Kando in Korean, Jiangdao in Chinese) populated by ethnic Koreans and to which some groups in South Korea have begun to advance a historical claim that they hope to make good when Korea is reunified. In reality, however, ethnic Koreans in China have little interest in joining a unified Korea, and Seoul will likely need to renounce any such interests if it wants to gain Chinese support for any eventual unification of the peninsula.

Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and attempts by right-wing groups to produce revisionist history textbooks have prompted alarm in both China and South Korea and added to the emotion with which they accuse Japan of failing to show contrition for its World War II crimes. While Tokyo has offered numerous official apologies and provided billions of dollars of aid to help spur the development of South Korea and China, it has failed to offer direct compensation to individual victims, and, unlike Germany, has shown little interest in continued, critical examination of its history.

Combined with Japan’s moves to become a more “normal” nation in terms of defence capabilities, these battles over history increase regional fears of reviving Japanese militarism. Japan has passed legislation to allow it to play a stronger role within the U.S. military alliance and in international peacekeeping operations, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is backing a constitutional amendment that would remove most of the restrictions imposed on the country’s military after 1945. Hostile reactions to these moves by China and South Korea have created a backlash in Japan that goes beyond the extreme right.

History is an equally troubling subject, though in different ways, in South Korea, which is in the midst of leadership change and a re-examination of its relationship with the U.S. at the same time as it re-examines the national myths surrounding politically sensitive collaboration with and resistance to imperial Japan. And in China, history, not least the memory of the military struggle against that imperial Japan, is used to provide the legitimacy for its political order that communist ideology no longer can.

Attempts to address these emotion-laden and intertwined problems have led to some encouraging instances of inter-regional cooperation among scholars and civil society groups that suggest North East Asia’s problems can be managed. Promising proactive measures include codes of conducts – one has already been effective in reducing tensions over the Spratly Islands; agreements on joint management of off-shore resources; regional institutions to address energy and historical issues; increased military-to-military exchanges; and historical memorials that focus on the universal suffering of war victims, rather than on national glory or shame.

Definitively resolving territorial and historical disputes that have been building for decades will not be easy or quick but failure at least to ameliorate them risks undermining the peace and prosperity of the region.

Seoul/Brussels, 15 December 2005

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.