February may be the shortest month of the year, but it never fails to pack in plenty of discourse on Japan’s territorial disputes. Every year, central government representatives participate in Northern Territories Day on Feb. 7, usually seeing the prime minister offer a keynote address promising to resolve the long-standing dispute with Russia.
Next week, Shimane Prefecture will celebrate the relatively young Takeshima Day, which will invariably invite protest from the South Korean government that controls the islands it knows as “Dokdo.” All the while, media outlets continue to report on Chinese vessels maintaining their long streak of operations in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands.
With this month bringing Japan’s territorial disputes back to the fore, it begs the questions of why these issues keep coming up and why they are so difficult to resolve.
To understand the debate, it is important to examine two key issues. The first is that of sovereignty versus administration. In this sense, sovereignty is the recognized authority over a territory. Meanwhile, administration is the exercise of control over a territory. What this means is that a country can claim that certain land, air or maritime areas belong to it (sovereignty), but another country may actually control it (administration). This is at the heart of territorial disputes.
The second issue is understanding why countries care so much about territory, especially uninhabited areas that may seem of little-to-no value. There are four main reasons.
The most straightforward reason is geographical control. The land may not be valuable, but the international community recognizes territorial waters as twelve nautical miles from shore and the Exclusive Economic Zone — the area in which a country has fishing and other resource rights — as extending up to 200 miles from shore. Even a small island can generate hundreds of square miles of additional administrative area for a country.
The second reason is heritage. Perhaps people from one country may have previously resided in an area before an external force expelled them. They may still have a connection to that land that compels them to get it back.
The third reason is nationalism. In this case, people may simply want to lay claim to or protect administration of an area as a point of national pride.
Finally, there is the issue of precedent. Many governments are loath to give up on territorial claims because of the signal it sends to other countries with whom they have disputes. In other words, they do not want to suggest to other players that they may be willing to give up on those other claims, too.
With these things in mind, we now turn to a quick rundown of Japan’s three main territorial disputes.
The Senkaku Islands (aka Diaoyu) are a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. The dispute over the Senkakus emerged in earnest soon after the United States returned the islands back to Japan in 1972 with the U.S. reversion of the Ryukyu Islands. While there is no doubt over Japan’s administrative authority, both Taiwan and China have laid claim to them.
Takeshima (aka Dokdo or Liancourt Rocks) is a group of islets in the waters between Japan and South Korea. It is under the administrative control of South Korea, which has constructed small facilities on the islands and routinely executes military drills on and around them. Meanwhile, Japan maintains its sovereignty claim over the islets.
The Northern Territories (aka Kuriles) are four island groups located northeast of Hokkaido: Habomai, Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan. Unlike the other two disputes, Japan’s lone ally, the United States, has made clear its position on sovereignty, identifying that the Northern Territories are part of Japan’s sovereign territory while recognizing that Russia administratively controls them.
So, what can Japan do to resolve territorial disputes once and for all? When there are competing sovereignty claims, there are four basic options for resolution. The first is for the claimants to negotiate bilateral settlements. Those settlements may not resolve the sovereignty dispute, but they may address some of the interests driving those claims. For example, Japan and Taiwan negotiated a fishing rights agreement that permits Taiwanese fishing vessels to operate within the exclusive economic zone around the Senkakus.
The second is for the claimants to submit themselves to arbitration. An international court or tribunal convenes on the issue, reviews the documentation that could support each party’s sovereignty claims, and issues a decision. If the claimants both decide to take the case to arbitration, the operative notion is that they have agreed in principle to respect the outcome. A country can take a claim unilaterally to international courts, but there is then no obligation for the other side to adhere to the outcome. An example of this was in 2016 when the Philippines took its South China Sea sovereignty dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration: The tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines but China dismissed it outright.
The third method is for a claimant to take over administrative control by force. This of course is in violation of international law, but history has demonstrated that unresolved sovereignty claims offer an ever-present motive for conflict.
The final method is to pursue incremental changes to the status quo. Many like to call this the “salami slicing” strategy, in which an actor takes a little bit at a time until the entire salami is gone. Unfortunately for Japan, China has demonstrated this strategy in the Senkakus by trying to establish a condition of de facto co-administration before vying for sole administration.
It started with the Chinese government’s allowance of Chinese fishing vessels to operate around the Senkakus. Then China deployed coast guard vessels to administer the fishing boats instead of the Japan Coast Guard. After that, Chinese Coast Guard vessels just remained in the waters around the Senkakus and have intercepted any Japan Coast Guard vessels that attempt to expel Chinese fishing boats.
When the international community accepts the condition of “Chinese police Chinese” and “Japanese police all others,” they are almost at a status of co-administration. The next step will be for the Chinese Coast Guard to outnumber and outgun the Japan Coast Guard vessels to the point where the Japan-side simply cannot maintain parity in administrative capability.
There are additional factors that complicate the situation. In the case of the disputes with South Korea and Russia, Japan is at an inherent disadvantage. This is because the party with administrative control has the advantage. Possession equals position, so Japan is fighting an uphill battle in pursuit of resolution to those claims.
Then there is the issue of domestic politics, which usually makes territorial disputes more complicated than they have to be. In the case of the Senkakus, former Tokyo Gov. Shinataro Ishihara’s 2012 bid to purchase the islands prompted the central government to buy them first. This effectively nationalized the islands and sparked China to engage in more direct competition over administration.
In the case of Takeshima, Shimane Prefecture exacerbated the problem in 2005 when the prefectual assembly declared Feb. 22 to be Takeshima Day. It doesn’t matter that more Japanese are likely to know Feb. 22 as Cat Day than Takeshima Day, the fact that this celebration exists prompts the central government to recognize it.
It also doesn’t matter that the Japanese government has only ever sent a sub-Cabinet level representative to sit in on the festivities to maintain some political distance from it — that the event exists at all is considered an affront by South Korea who sees Dokdo as an integral part of its national identity.
Finally, there is the factor of issue attention. Perhaps some of these territorial disputes would not generate as much ire as they tend to do, but the more attention they receive from the public, the more impetus politicians have to take on the issue.
What can generate issue attention on territorial disputes? They include things like incidents that involve territorial claims, leaks about government policies related to those disputes, special interest groups lobbying for resolution, and prefectural assemblies announcing new commemoration days, to name a few. When one government increases its volume and activities vis-a-vis territorial claims, the other party to the dispute tends to respond. As a result, any scar tissue that has built up over time gets removed.
For Japan, February happens to be a month when those wounds get reopened, reminding us once again that there are no easy remedies for the long-standing and ever-present territorial disputes the country shares with its regional neighbors.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies.
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