Japan-Korea islet spat

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Category : Monzurul Huq

Monzurul Huq Writes from Tokyo
In the beginning was the word and the word was God. It is all in words that many of our disputes too have their origin. If the Tower of Babel is the symbol of God’s desire to prevent human beings reaching the height where the divines are to dwell, it is we, humans who make the possibility of touching the sky impossible by creating new fictitious dividing lines that keep us eternally separated from each other. And all over the world such dividing lines and claims of ownership are continuing to create new problems, despite the fact that outwardly our world seems to be coming closer than ever before.

Long back in history, ownership of something seen or reached for the first time was a normal and accepted practice, no matter if people had inhabited a place for hundreds of years. Christopher Columbus reached the shores of Americas for the first time in history sailing from the continent on the verge of modernity and unprecedented expansion of its influence. He claimed the ownership of the whole territory on behalf of the Queen of Spain, ignoring the fact that the land was not a terra nostra as human civilisation had already taken roots over there long before Columbus reached the continent and much earlier than the Europeans themselves turned civilised.

So, the claims of territories by states are a superficial concept that often runs contrary to the reality of situation. And if a territory is a barren or a thinly populated one, the legacy might continue for very long, even long after the word colonialism turned obsolete and meaningless. The Island of Malvinas, what the present day owners call Falkland Island, is a typical example of that absurdity as the territory is being governed from London. A very thinly populated stretch of land situated at the southern end of Atlantic allowed the colonial rulers to turn a blind eye and continue claiming the ownership. Colonialism after all is subjugation of people, not the land. But barren lands, or rather a few empty rocks floating above water can also flare disputes among countries, precisely because the ownership of such rocks might give a country legitimate right to extend the sea area of its exclusive belonging to a further 200 kilometres from that particular point. That is why rocks everywhere in the sea have suddenly become so important and not a single country is willing to give up the right to their ownership.

The Islets of Takeshima, known in Korean language as Dokdo, fall precisely into the category of rocks floating above the water in the Sea of Japan. In recent days the islets have become new flashpoint of rivalry between Japan and South Korea as both are claiming the ownership of the rocks, citing historical facts and figures as well as other relevant examples supporting the claim. Situated off the coast of western part of Japan’s main Honshu Island, the islets of Takeshima was incorporated to the administration of Shimane prefecture almost 100 years ago. This is the main point that Japan stresses in claiming the ownership of the disputed rocks, which has been occupied by South Korean naval forces for quite sometime now.

South Korea on her part claims that the origin of the name Dokdo traces back much earlier and they also do not hesitate to mention that at the time Japan put the islets under the administrative jurisdiction of Shimane prefecture, the country was too weak to prevent any such Japanese move. It should be noted that Japan invaded Korean Peninsula in 1910 and kept the territory under Tokyo’s colonial subjugation until the end of World War II.

Takeshima or Dokdo, whatever the real name is, suddenly re-emerged in the limelight of international news as the two outwardly friendly neighbours all of a sudden started flexing muscles for an apparent show off of strength to claim the ownership of the rocks. It all started with words or vocabularies. The South Korean government earlier made an official announcement of its desire to submit a proposal at an international conference scheduled in June to register Korean names for seabed features near the disputed islets. The Japanese side was worried that the move, if not stopped in time, might even prompt South Korean authorities to move further and propose the change of name of the Sea of Japan as well, which the Koreans refer to as East Sea. That was the starting point of a new muscle flexing game surrounding names or words in vocabulary.

To counter the Korean move, Japan resorted to a different tactic. Without losing much time, Tokyo made an announcement declaring Japan’s intention to dispatch a number of Coast Guard vessels to the areas near the rocks to conduct a seabed survey off the South Korean held islets. This was soon followed by sharp exchanges of words between the two sides and South Koreans made it clear that they would seize any Japanese survey vessel if entered waters near the rocky islets. As both sides refused the back down from their respective position, they eventually decided to hold high-level meetings during the weekend to find a possible solution to the standoff.

The weekend discussions held in Seoul between the foreign secretaries of two countries eventually led to a last minute compromise that was helpful in defusing the tension for the time being. The two sides have agreed that Japan will postpone the plan to conduct the survey and in return South Korea will refrain from submitting a proposal at the international conference for giving seabed features Korean names. The two governments also agreed to resume talks in May over setting an agreed Exclusive Economic Zone line, which has been seen by experts as the sticky point that flared the recent outburst of controversy.

With new economic powers on the rise, East Asia is gradually becoming an area of growing tension and mistrust. Japan is already having serious territorial dispute with China concerning another set of small islands in East China Sea. Japan is accusing China for starting the extraction of natural gas from an underwater gas field, claiming that Chinese drilling is siphoning off gas deposits from the Japanese side of the dividing line. China so far has simply ignored such Japanese complaint and is saying that they are involved in deep sea drilling only in areas that belong to them.

Scarcity of resources is compelling many countries to look for valuable deposits deep under the sea. But the law that defines the rights of a state to claim the legitimacy over the sea areas becomes confusing when the territorial expansion of sea territory overlaps with that of another country. Neighbours, therefore, have an obligation to discuss and try to find a durable solution that would satisfy the demands of all parties concerned. Unless Japan and South Korea resolve the issue of the islets in a comprehensive manner, Takeshima is bound to re-emerge again and again whenever the leadership of either of the two countries intends to resort to the narrow world of nationalism with an eye fixed firmly on improving their ratings within the country.

Monzurul Huq is a columnist of The Daily Star.

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