Plunge Pontificates

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Analysis of the Dokdo (Takeshima) Dispute

This article gives a wonderful review of the situation, but even more, goes into why this dispute is so important to the stability of the region.

The conclusion of this lengthy article gives one reason to pause and think about what is happening in the region.

I would call this a MUST READ for anyone concerned about the region.

The escalation of the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute reveals the erosion of U.S. influence in Northeast Asia. Washington's basic policy in the region is to collaborate with South Korea and Japan to balance China's rising power and to roll back or at least contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Faced with deepening tensions between its two allies, both of those aims are in jeopardy.

During the ongoing crisis, Washington has remained neutral, urging both sides to reach an amicable resolution to their dispute. That position is thrust upon Washington because a tilt toward Tokyo would drive Seoul closer to the arms of Beijing and Pyongyang, and a tilt toward Seoul would impel Tokyo to assert its independence more forthrightly.

Washington's impotence results from the simple fact that it is over-extended globally and is no longer perceived as a credible protector. In Northeast Asia, more than in any other region, the fraying of the U.S. "security blanket" heightens instability; the major regional powers have not forged a cooperative combine and there is no institutional structure to mediate conflicts. In similar situations in modern history, economic interdependence has not always been sufficient to prevent violent conflict, in which clashing interests are inflamed by nationalist sentiment.

The danger of hegemony is that when it weakens, suppressed interests are left to confront one another and achieve a balance of power on their own, often through a painful and sometimes violent process. That is not to say that a Northeast Asian war is imminent, but only that the seeds for one have been sown and that there are signs that they are germinating.

Analysts have noted that if Tokyo backs off from Dokdo/Takeshima, it will lose traction in its disputes with Beijing and Moscow, jeopardizing its overall regional position and its military ambitions. At present, with the nationalist genie out of the bottle and caught among the Chinese and Japanese behemoths, Seoul is in no position to compromise. North Korea and China welcome the conflict between Japan and South Korea, which can only work to erode U.S. influence further and to advance their respective regional interests by splitting the (former) allies.

As would-be U.S. hegemony cedes to regionalism and nationalism, underlying conflicts surface and the pattern of interdependent and competitive relations becomes more complex and fraught with instability. "Contingency management" -- as the Japanese call it -- becomes an overriding imperative, but it is ever more difficult to achieve.