Territorial disputes between Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing growing

Kingdoms and governments have never stopped trying to stake claims to additional territory, and neighboring nations in Northeast Asia are no different.

Korea, Japan and China, have long been in a tug-of-war with each other over territorial sovereignty, leading Asia experts to voice concerns that the growing disputes may in the long term hinder the region`s overall unity and stability.

"There is no immediate effect, but the long term effects of territorial fights will most definitely have enough significance on the region to disturb peace and order among nations," professor Han Suk-hee of Yonsei University told The Korea Herald.

The country seemingly has never been as alone as it is now, locked in on-going battles over territory and history with neighbors China and Japan.

It is now more crucial than ever to sort out pending regional disputes: sovereignty over Dokdo, correcting the name of East Sea, and redefining the historic boundaries of Sino-Korea.

Northeast Asia expert professor Choo Jae-woo of Kyunghee University believes tensions among the three nations depend on "how far Japan can go with its military forces and how far China can go with its economic power." Dokdo and East Sea The strife with Japan over claims to the small rocky islets of Dokdo and the East Sea add fuel to relations which for decades have flared up regularly over incidents dating back to Japan`s colonization on the peninsula in the early 1900s.

Dokdo, made up of two main islands of rocks and 33 other islets, for years has been administered by South Korea`s Ulleung Island in North Gyeongsang Province.

Located about 215 kilometers off the eastern border of Korea and 90 kilometers east of Ulleung Island, the rich fishing area has been a source of dispute since the Korean Peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.

But many analysts here consider the Dokdo issue as something which is beyond dispute since they firmly believe sovereignty belongs to Korea and Japan is merely "poking around" in hopes of a share or more of a pile of rocks that have military value.

"Situated in the East Sea, Dokdo itself has valuable strategic implications for Korea and Japan as well as the United States, which has its military forces aligned in both countries," professor Choo said.

The first historical references to Dokdo were in Korean documents referring to it as a part of an independent island state known as Usanguk (Ulleung Island), which was incorporated into the Korean Silla Kingdom in A.D. 512. Historically, since at least 1881, the island has been called Dokdo by Koreans, meaning "Lonely Island" or "Rock Island." Since 1954, South Korean coast guards have set up camp on the island, and built a lighthouse and helicopter landing pad on the islet as a symbol of Seoul`s ownership.

The issue of sovereignty over the islands was omitted from the 1965 Basic Relations Treaty between the two neighbors, and both sides maintain territorial claims.

But a more serious issue is the dispute over the name of a channel between the two countries. For decades, the two sides have tussled over the name of the sea tract water, which has significant importance for each country`s military strategy.

Korea calls it the East Sea while Japan insists it is the Sea of Japan. The two have been wrangling over the issue for more than a decade.

Korea watchers warn, though, that Seoul must come up with a new plan rather than just a few old maps to try to convince Japan, let alone the world, that the water should be called the East Sea.

They point out that Korea has to explain to the international community its claims to the name "East Sea" since that would seem to assume that Korea is the center of the world.

The dispute flares up periodically, typically when Japan attempts to claim the islands with the hope that the United States will help since it will provide U.S. forces with an extension of their range of operation.

"But that`s kind of like pulling one`s leg, especially if you understand that the United States also has an alliance with Korea," professor Choo said.

Both North and South Korea argue that Japan`s more widely recognized name for the waterway is a vestige from Japanese colonization on the peninsula and should be changed. The issue thus has emotional overtones.

Some experts say names like the East Sea will lose validity and identity and that it should be changed to the "Korean East Sea," as used by North Korea today.

One expert who has studied the issue, professor Bruce Henry Lambert of the European Institute of Japanese Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics, suggests a new name might be best. For example, he says, what about the "Friendly Sea," which could help strengthen ties between the countries.

Sino-Korean disputes Alongside the disputes over China`s distortion of Korean ancient history is the issue of ancient territory, including what Koreans refer to as the Gando region, which covers the present day Jian and Jilin area in China.

China took territorial rights over the Gando region in a treaty signed between Japan and China Sept. 4, 1909. Koreans, however, claim the area originally was theirs.

Referring to a 1737 French map, "Royaume de Coree (Kingdom of Korea)," some historians say it shows that the Korea-China boundary was slanted more toward the north in the past, demonstrating that the Gando region was associated with Korea since then.

But many opposing voices even within the country stress that modern day Sino-Korean boundaries are intact, and that claiming land which for hundreds of years has belonged to another country is pushing territorial claims too far.

"Over the history of Goguryeo, what we are claiming is that we definitely want our history back. But other territory beyond modern borders is pushing it too far out of line," professor Han said.

"When we argue for those territories depends on how the peninsula will transfer in the near future and only after unification. The potential territory dispute then would be the Baekdu mountain which is drawn in favor of North Korea. China made an attempt to claim it in the 60s and North Korea took a bold enough approach to engage in military action." In the long run, perhaps all three nations have bigger ambitions. Though small in physical size and population compared to China, Korea and Japan still hope to mark a mark as a leader in Asia.

The worst-case scenario in the territorial disputes is China`s aims. It borders 13 other nations and has already absorbed many little surrounding territories - for example, Hong Kong and Tibet.

China`s "Northeast Asia project" is seen by many Asia watchers as Beijing`s ambitions to return to the old "middle kingdom" of Asia again, with an updated version of tributary states providing China with easy access to their markets and material.

Some warn that Beijing`s attempt to make it sound like it is pursuing integration for Asia`s common good, is really aimed at establishing China`s pre-eminence.

"Continued disputes especially by China and Japan will bring serious consequences to the region. South Korea may feel safe by being out of it, but looking at northeast Asia as a whole, fallout will be inevitable," professor Choo said.

"One possibility may be that some of China`s angered neighbors will join hands to fight against Beijing. But it will be a question as to whether these nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, can hold together." But China will have to face off with one of its major competitors: Japan. Beijing`s oversized land mass and overwhelming manpower has still not been able to resolve a dispute over islands initially claimed by Taiwan.

These disputed islets, known as the Diaoyu and called the Senkaku islands in Japan, are a group of eight desolated rocky areas located in the East China Sea, but the surrounding area is rich in fish, oil reserves and other valuable natural resources. This makes ownership a desirable financial asset for China, Japan and also Taiwan.

Experts warn that a dispute over this particular territory will force neighbors to become foes and call for an agreement among the relevant countries that would be of benefit all-round.

"Normalizing relations would give Japan and China an effective diplomatic card to balance its powers and relations in Asia and with the United States who maintain close ties with several Asian countries including South Korea," professor Choo said.

By Choi Soung-ah

(Korea Herald 2004-9-10)