A Sea of Hard Feelings
There was heated tension sparked by two very unexpected objects in Asia this past year: a tropical mango mousse dessert served by South Korea at a dinner summit, and a catalogue map sold by the Japanese retail company, Muji.
The mousse was presented to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, during the inter-Korean summit, decorated with a map of unified Korea and a small dot to the right of the peninsula — Dokdo, or as claimed to be Takeshima by Japan (Hunt). With strained relations between the two nations due to the occupation of Korea by Imperial Japan (1910-1945), South Koreans see Dokdo as “the very symbol of the restoration of Korea’s sovereignty”, a sentiment echoed by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Dokdo/Takeshima dispute is used to provoke nationalism from both South Korea and Japan, thus, the mousse provoked tensions due to the topic’s sensitive nature.
In the case of the Muji controversy, the Japanese franchise had left out islets disputed between China and Japan named Diaoyu/Senkaku, as referred to in China and Japan respectively, from the company’s 2017 Fall/Winter Catalogue (Liao). Island disputes in Asia are not uncommon. Although these islands may not be ostensibly desirable, the disputes symbolize the struggle for sovereignty, nationalism, fishing borders, and natural resources.
These territorial disputes are directly impacting the geopolitical atmosphere in Asian seas, as can be observed by the escalating tensions in the area involving multiple parties. In the case of the South China Sea conflict, China has been rather aggressive with their approach. The Paracels and the Spratlys are claimed by several countries including China and the Philippines, and this area is a valuable territory for its natural resources and as a key shipping route (“South China Sea Dispute: China Lands Bombers on Island.”). China has militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea as an articulation of power and a threat to contesting nations over the sovereignty of such a key area. Likewise, President Duterte of the Philippines issued a statement claiming he hopes for China to “temper at least its behavior” and that he “[does] not want to quarrel with China” (Westcott). The actions China is taking in regards to these disputes are provoking rival countries to contribute their economic resources to ramp up their military power and conduct joint military drills with Washington (Harlan). Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes this motivated spending towards military enhancement increases the likelihood of “disagreement or incident [escalating] into a conflict” (Chandran).
Aside from the national pride that comes with the sovereignty of these disputed islands, one of the primary reasons for contention is due to the concept of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). EEZ is where a “coastal state assumes jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources in its adjacent section of the continental shelf, taken to be a band extending 200 miles from the shore” (OECD, 2001). Thus, states are driven to expand their own EEZ (Short). However, conflicting interests arise through historical claims and analyses presented from the parties at dispute.
The disputes are a very sensitive topic with various historical interpretations involving who should have the right to claim these lands or whose territory it is in the first place. In conjunction, due to the hostility that is present, the tension in Asian seas does not seem as though it will die down any time soon.
Chandran, Nyshka. “The World's Economic Miracle Is under Threat on Three Sides.” CNBC, CNBC, 17 Aug. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/08/17/geopolitical-risks-are-a-risk-to-asia-economy.html. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
“Glossary of Statistical Terms.” OECD, 25 Sept. 2001,
https://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=884. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
Harlan, Chico. “In Asia, a Wave of Escalating Territorial Disputes.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Aug. 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-asia-a-wave-of-escalating-territorial-disputes/2012/08/11/1ff82fea-e38e-11e1-a25e-15067bb31849_story.html?utm_term=.811a983b0d3b. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
Hunt, Katie. “Japan Objects to the Dessert South Korea Is Serving Kim Jong Un.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 Apr. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/04/25/asia/japan-south-korea-summit-dessert-map-intl/index.html. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
Liao, Tim. “Why China, Japan and Korea Fuss over Tiny Islands - 4 Things to Know.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Apr. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/04/17/why-japan-is-making-a-big-fuss-over-tiny-islands-4-things-to-know/?utm_term=.a927a186ed56. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
Short, John Rennie. “Troubled Waters: Conflict in the South China Sea Explained.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 5 Feb. 2019, theconversation.com/troubled-waters-conflict-in-the-south-china-sea-explained-59203. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
“South China Sea Dispute: China Lands Bombers on Island.” BBC News, BBC, 19 May 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-44180773. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.
Westcott, Ben. “Beijing Should 'Temper' Its Behavior in the South China Sea, Duterte Says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 Aug. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/08/15/asia/duterte-china-south-china-sea-intl/index.html. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019.