Domestic politics fuels Northeast Asian maritime disputes

Publication Date: January 2000

Publisher: East-West Center

Author(s): Mark J. Valencia

Research Area: Law and ethics; Politics

Type: Report


In recent years Japan has been embroiled in heated disputes with Russia, South Korea, and China over several small islands to its north and in the Japan and East China Seas. These islands and rocks may hold considerable value as base points for generating claims to Exclusive Economic Zones containing fish, oil, and gas. Yet these disputes are about more than economic resources: the tiny features have become powerful symbols of nationalist pride and politics. This has perpetuated the disputes at great expense to the countries. The regional spread of democratization has only aggravated the difficulty of making international settlements, as politicians react to constituents' demands not to make territorial concessions and political factions harness the disputes to their own purposes. There is a real danger that the disputes could escalate and trigger conflict. Thus, a modus operandi must be devised to manage them. A first step would be the recognition by country leaders that they and their counterparts in rival claimant countries are constrained by the same domestic pressures.