Peace in Northeast Asia. Resolving Japan’s Territorial and Maritime Disputes with China, Korea and the Russian Federation

Peace in Northeast Asia

Author(s): Thomas J. Schoenbaum (ed.)

ISBN:          978-1- 84720-665 7

Publisher: Edward Elgar Publishing

Year:          2008

Price:         £45.00

Review by Markus Bell

Schoenbaum’s Peace in Northeast Asia, investigates Japan’s territorial and maritime disputes with its East Asian neighbors and offers a variety of possibilities for the solution of these long troubling disputes.  The book is divided into eight different chapters, including the introduction, with contributions from three different specialists, including the author.  The book covers the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over gas resources in the East China Sea and the historically rooted issues of territory ownership affecting greater issues of international relations between Japan and her neighbors – Russia, China and South Korea. The authors each put forth pragmatic methods in which these disputes might be solved without resorting to armed conflict.

Initially this book strikes a familiar tone with the reviewer.  Having lived for an extended period in South Korea, spent time conducting anthropological fieldwork on the Island of Ulleungdo-close to the disputed islets of Dokdo, visited the disputed island of Sakhalin, and discussed these topics in some depth with Japanese and Russian acquaintances these topics hold an appeal on a human level.  It is with some interest then, that I approached these topics on a more academic level.

The stated purpose of the essays included in Peace in Northeast Asia, is to, “…set out the history and basis of all three disputes [Japan-Russia, China and South Korea] and to suggest concrete ways they may be resolved” (Schoenbaum p. 2).  To the contributors’ credit, this is exactly what is done.  The history of the areas and an explanation of why the areas are disputed, are each discussed and in the publication and solutions put forth.  For the amateur historian and the legal mind this book offers important insights into the international and domestic issues at stake in resolving these issues.  The theme that is continuously emphasized is that without mutual co-operation and sincere efforts at joint development in the areas the situations between the actors will not improve.  The issues at stake, as mentioned previously, are deeply historically rooted and in the cases of shifting maritime boundaries represent access to natural resources and wider political issues.  The authors discuss the weight of the legal cases of each of the players and drawing on data from historical documents and legal precedents attempt an unbiased judgment of the strength of each nation’s claims.

This book can be a heavy read, with sections devoted to examining language used in claims from a legalistic approach and constant references to what politician ‘X’ said in response to the accusations of politician ‘Y’.  Throughout the book much information is repeated, given the legalistic nature of the contents however, this feature can help the layman overcome some of the difficulties associated with the more technical aspects of the contents, for example, the extensive references to legal policies and international law.  Furthermore, each chapter offers concise concluding notes in which the reader can grasp the essentials of the issues at stake and the author’s proposed solutions.

Confusion can arise in the use of names and terms for areas and land.  For example, the author discusses the “Japan Sea” (Schoenbaum. 28) without making reference to the fact that this is also known as the “East Sea”.  Furthermore, the Korean island of Ulleungdo suffers from irregular spelling in the book, being referred to as the “South Korean island of Ururundo” at one point (Schoenbaum, p. 29) and then Ullung Island or Ullungdo later in the publication (Schoenbaum, p. 105).  Some form of agreed upon standardized spelling and clarification of terms would have been helpful to the reader not familiar with these areas.

The section entitled, “The History of Takeshima/Dok Island” (Schoenbaum, p. 106) should also be approached with some background understanding of the historical situation of the time period being discussed.  The entering of Takeshima in the Japanese State Land Register in 1905 is followed by a remark on the expansionist policies of Japan at that time and the annexing of the Korean peninsula shortly thereafter (Schoenbaum, p. 107-108).  What should be understood by the reader is the insidious nature of the events that led up to Japan gaining control over Korean territories.  As this is, admittedly, not the focus on this publication, this comment should not be taken as criticism, merely a warning regarding careful understanding of the background of the claims in question.

Essentially, this book provides a logically written explanation of legalistic matters that otherwise would be hard to approach for the layman.  Examining each of the disputes from as near as objective a point of view as is possible, the authors propose resolution to Japan’s maritime disputes through a series of joint energy development projects, zones of ecological protection and on-going co-operation.  The arguments laid out in this book are clear and precise and postulate a need for mutual co-operation and an ecological use of resources as well as the importance for regional actors to use international legal institutions as a conduit to peaceful resolution and mutual benefit.