Chinese, South Korean and Japanese diplomats recently took to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly to reassert their countries’ positions on the territorial issues surrounding several small islands in the seas of East Asia.

But the composed manner in which they delivered their remarks belied their countries’ long-simmering tensions over the islands, which have come to a near boil in the last few months.

At the center of one heated dispute, between China and Japan, are the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands. In September, Japan’s government announced its purchase of three of the islands from their private Japanese owner, inciting protests across China. Soon after, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels approached the islands to assert China’s sovereignty.

These vessels have lately been joined by an increasing number of Chinese surveillance forces, which periodically enter the waters surrounding the islands, sometimes leading to direct confrontation with Japanese patrol ships.

With the situation threatening to escalate further, both sides need to contain the conflict quickly and restore the status quo. Indeed, the situation is all the more volatile in view of the political transition now underway in China.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan are engaged in a territorial standoff over the islets of Dokdo (called Takeshima in Japanese). In early August, Lee Myung Bak became the first South Korean president to visit the islets; Japan’s government responded by proposing to take the sovereignty issue to the International Court of Justice.

But the ICJ cannot exercise jurisdiction in the dispute without both countries’ consent, and South Korea has rejected Japan’s proposal, maintaining that Lee was within his authority to visit the islets, given that Dokdo is unquestionably South Korean territory. Indeed, South Korea’s government denies that there is any dispute over the islands.

Historical context is crucial to assessing the Dokdo issue. Like the rest of Korea, Dokdo was annexed by Japan in the early 20th century, and restored to Korean control after World War II, when Korea regained its independence.

Thus, while outsiders might view the desolate islands as insignificant, for Koreans, Japan’s position on Dokdo is tantamount to a challenge to their country’s independence and a denial of its right to exercise sovereignty over its own territory.

As a result, Dokdo has been a thorn in relations between the two countries for decades. In 2005, the creation of a “Takeshima Day” by a local government in Japan triggered a public uproar in South Korea. But Japan has not shied away from the issue, with prominent political figures joining Takeshima Day celebrations each year.

Furthermore, Japan’s habit of distorting facts in its history books — for example, denying that its former colonial subjects were forced into sexual slavery — has fueled distrust and anger in South Korea and elsewhere in East Asia, including China.

Dokdo is situated midway between the Korean Peninsula and Japan’s main island, roughly 115 nautical miles from each. But the islets are much closer to the nearest Korean island, Ulleungdo, than to Japan’s Oki Islands.

A survey of historical documents shows a distinct shift in Japan’s position on Dokdo. For example, in the late 17th century, when conflict between Korea and Japan erupted over the passage of Japanese fishermen to Ulleungdo, Tottori-han (one of Japan’s feudal clans) told Japan’s central government that Ulleungdo and Dokdo did not fall within Japanese territory.

Likewise, a report in 1870 by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “A Confidential Inquiry into the Particulars of Korea’s Foreign Relations,” shows that the ministry recognized Dokdo as Korean territory. Indeed, the report includes the subject title “How Takeshima and Matsushima Came to Belong to Joseon” (later renamed Korea).

Moreover, the Dajokan, Japan’s highest decision-making body in 1868-1885, denied any claims of sovereignty over Dokdo through its Order of 1877. Yet, in 1905, Japan took measures to incorporate Dokdo in order to use it as a strategic military site for its war with Russia.

The final text of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which ended World War II in the Pacific, makes no mention of Dokdo. But earlier versions identified the islets as Korean territory. The reference in the final version, drafted by the United States, was removed in light of U.S. interests in building strategic partnerships with both South Korea and Japan.

However, the 1943 Cairo Declaration, which stipulated the Allied Powers’ basic position on Japan’s territorial boundaries after World War II, stated that Japan would be expelled from all territories that it had annexed through violence. In this context, the unconditional return of Dokdo to Korea — and Korea’s continued sovereignty over Dokdo — is indisputable.

In an increasingly interconnected world, significant challenges can be addressed only through regional and global partnerships. But, in order to build a meaningful framework for cooperation, enduring distrust among East Asian countries must be dispelled.

Regional leaders must not get caught up in finger-pointing or avoid taking responsibility for past transgressions. An honest evaluation of history is crucial to establishing lasting peace and prosperity in East Asia.

Han Seung Soo was prime minister of South Korea, 2008-2009, and president of the 56th Session of the U.N. General Assembly. © 2012 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.