Monday, August 29, 2011

Japan besieged north and south

China, Russia muscle in on Japan-claimed islands

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (Nov. 6) --
Japan, which for centuries relished the security of being an archipelago, is being challenged in separate territorial disputes over small islands.

It's unclear whether the challenges -- from Russia in the north and China in the south -- are in any way coordinated. But analysts say they represent a diplomatic baptism by fire for Japan's year-old, center-left government, which is seen as inexperienced in world affairs.

Both rows are also seen testing the strength of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. That alliance has come under severe strain in the past year due to sharp disagreement over a relocation plan for a U.S. military base in Okinawa.

In both territorial disputes, the U.S. has urged bilateral talks between Japan and the other claimant, but neither China nor Russia is disposed to listen to Washington.

"China and Russia do not trust the U.S. enough to accept it as an honest broker and would likely view such an offer as U.S. interference," James Manicom, an expert on East Asian maritime disputes at the University of Toronto, said in an e-mail exchange. "I'm skeptical that U.S. mediation will be accepted by parties to either dispute."

China earlier this week rejected one U.S. offer to mediate its dispute with Japan.

Russia sparked a diplomatic spat Monday when President Dmitry Medvedev visited an island chain northeast of Japan's Hokkaido that has been controlled by Russia since World War II but is also claimed by Japan. Tokyo protested and recalled its ambassador to Moscow. (See a map here and a video report on the flap from Russia Today below.)

Called the Southern Kuril Islands by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, the islands have been contested since World War II, a dispute that has prevented the two countries from inking a formal peace treaty. Various offers and counteroffers have been made through the years, with little success.

Japanese media attributed Medvedev's provocative visit to his desire to burnish his nationalist credentials ahead of a power struggle with his rival and mentor, Vladimir Putin, for the presidency in 2012. The visit was also seen as a rebuke to Japanese foreign minister Seiji Maehara, who said bluntly last year that Russia was "illegally occupying" the islands.

Kimie Hara of the University of Waterloo said the visit was an affirmation of Russia's ties with China, too. "The Russian president's visit to the disputed island was also prompted by his meeting with his Chinese counterpart in late September in Beijing, where they celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Soviet-Chinese alliance in the war against Japan (1936-45) and confirmed their solidarity," Hara wrote in an e-mail.

A Chinese analyst suggested the same in comments to Global Times, saying "the strong message by Medvedev's visit to the island, to some extent, echoes China's firm stance on its dispute with Japan."

The dispute over islets on Japan's southern flank is seen as being more explosive. The uninhabitable islets, called the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, have been effectively controlled by Japan since 1972 but are also claimed by China and Taiwan.

A collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessels in September near the islets sparked the worst diplomatic tensions in at least five years between the two Asian powers. The collision triggered large-scale, tit-for-tat nationalist protests in both Japan and China.

Now, Japan and China are both running regular, armed patrols near the islets. "The potential for miscalculation between such vessels is thus elevated," Manicom said.

"The probability of something really bad happening is pretty modest, but the consequences are very bad," Richard Bush, an expert on China-Japan security relations at the Brookings Institution, said at a recent forum in Washington, D.C. "The chance of some kind of clash between marine forces of the two countries is increasing because of competing interests in the East China Sea."

Bush warned that even a minor episode could spiral out of control because of poor crisis management capabilities on both sides.

"Institutional factors at play suggest that just because the two governments have contained these episodes and don't want a crisis doesn't mean that they can contain incidents in the future," Bush said. "Neither side wants a true crisis, but each may be hard pressed to avoid one in the event of a really serious clash."

In the northern dispute, by contrast, potential crises are seen as more manageable. Hara noted that a more serious incident occurred in the north in 2006, when a Japanese fisherman was shot dead by the Russian Coast Guard near the disputed islands.

"But the situation was handled more skillfully," Hara said, sparking no protests in either Japan or Russia. In the south, "the tension escalated this time because the case was mishandled by the young [Democratic Party of Japan] government."

Both disputes could potentially drag in the U.S. due to its treaty obligations. The U.S.-Japan defense pact obligates Washington to respond in the event of an attack on any territory under Japan's administration.

The U.S. said it backs Japan's claim in the island dispute with Russia. But Washington has also said the defense treaty doesn't apply because Japan does not control the islands, according to a Xinhua news report.

In the south, the reverse is the case. The U.S. takes no position on the sovereignty of the disputed islets. But it says the islets fall within the scope of the U.S.-Japan defense pact because they are administered by Japan.

On Monday, video of the Sept. 7 collision between the Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessels was shown to Japanese Diet members.

Purported excerpts were later leaked and posted to YouTube (See links at Japan Probe here, and an Al-Jazeera report below.)

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