Does Asia need to repeat the experience of two catastrophic world wars before it sorts out its nationalist pathologies? Perhaps. Certainly the reality in Asia is that there is nary a country that would formally accept its current borders as final. But there is a larger question: does it matter in this age of the knowledge economy? After all, we are not talking about disputes over Alsace-Lorraine, Manchuria or the Korean Peninsula. We are talking about tiny outcroppings that combined have no more land mass than Hong Kong. If you “win” on such disputes, what exactly do you gain, other than feeling good because the other claimant lost? In the information-age global economy, tiny nations like Singapore are larger players than nations with several orders of magnitude more land.
Americans tend to think that all problems have solutions. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Some problems can only be managed. Conflict in East Asia cannot be ruled out. Nationalism combined with ever-more-capable military forces may well boil over.
And for the United States, which has treaty allies in the mix, such conflict would create a difficult quandary. The Senkakus are controlled by Japan, whom we are obliged to defend if attacked. More bizarre is prospective hostility between two U.S. allies, the ROK and Japan. In a conflict between Seoul and Tokyo, where would that leave Washington?
Considering the role of national honor, a resolution of the various disputes may simply be too hard. Which nation would accept the loss of face? Some have suggested submitting the various competing claims to the International Court of Justice at the Hague as a face-saving way out. But there are few clear cut cases. The Law of the Sea Treaty does not provide guidance for overlapping claims, which in some cases are among three or more claimants. And who decides whether historical arguments (e.g. “We found the Senkakus first!”) or treaties resulting from conflict take precedence?
The optimistic scenario is that over time the passions become less intense, and the desire for economic prosperity dominates, with many of these disputes lingering—as they have over the past half century—as irritants. There are precedents in both the Arctic and Southeast Asia of putting aside sovereignty claims and jointly developing resources. That could lead to a manageable if inconclusive outcome. But who would bet the mortgage on it?
Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served in the State Department as a senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific (1989-93) and on the Secretary’s policy planning staff (2004-08).