Territorial disputes are shaking the East Asian international order today.
We are witnessing a chain reaction of crisis that has developed from the Northern Islands to the Dokdo Islands to the Diaoyu Islands. The South China Sea is also seeing increased tensions.
Japan is in a difficult situation because its direct involvement with three out of four of these disputes has aggravated relations with its neighbors: South Korea, China and Russia.
Tokyo's recent reshuffle of ambassadorial posts in Beijing, Seoul and Washington was a response to a feeling of alarm that its East Asian policy could be thrown into chaos.
Two deputy ministers for foreign affairs, Shinichi Nishimiya and Koro Bessho, will be sent to China and South Korea respectively. Kenichiro Sasae, a senior deputy minister for foreign affairs, will be the ambassador to the US.
But the conditions that make Tokyo's improved diplomacy so crucial are also those that make its realization so difficult. The complexity of the territorial issues seems to be outpacing the capacity of the current foreign policy team.
The territorial issues are inflammable. They arouse nationalism, leading to diplomatic predicaments. Although territorial disputes in modern times have often been resolved without recourse to war, nationalist sentiments obstruct diplomatic prudence and push states toward an unwanted head-to-head confrontation.
Worse, historical issues are invariably behind territorial disputes in Asia. For example, territorial claims by the Japanese government are viewed by the South Koreans as a refusal to apologize for its militarist aggression in the first half of the 20th century. For Koreans, Dokdo is a symbol of Japanese colonial expansionism.
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