Never mind that Japan has recalled its Ambassador to China. You can bet the mortgage that nary a word was said at the series of high-level ASEAN and East Asia Summit (EAS) security meetings attended by Secretary of State Clinton last week about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute between China and Japan.
Or, for that matter, South Korea’s putting on ice a new military cooperation accord with Japan. Such real live issues are rarely discussed at the Asia political schmoozes.

This long-simmering dispute, which for China is a residue of one of the “unequal treaties” a flailing Qing dynasty was forced into after the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war, is emblematic of the underlying pathologies stalking the region.

More remarkable still, Korea, Japan and China continue to more deeply integrate their economies and negotiate a trilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) even as political tensions rise. Trade between China and Japan hit a record $344.9 billion in 2011, up 14.3 percent from the previous year, and is expected to reach $350 billion in 2012, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. China-South Korea trade reached $221 billion in 2011, Japanese investment in China surged by 49.6 percent year-on-year in 2011 to $6.3 billion, and the first five months of 2012 saw Japanese investment of $3.22 billion, up 16.6 percent from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

The Senakaku/Diaoyu dispute, like the Tokdo/Takeshima island dispute between Korea and Japan, are among a welter of minor offshore island disputes that keep alive the ghosts of history, even as the dynamic region continues to drive global growth as it more deeply integrates itself economically.

The Senkaku controversy flared after the Japanese government, inspired by nationalist Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, pushed the issue of buying the privately held islands and began to raise funds to do so. As this issue swirled, China sent state fisheries patrol boats into the territorial waters around the disputed islands. With Japan, a close US ally, this is hardly an academic matter.

Asia’s Archduke Ferdinand?

The rise of China is usually cited as the key issue when analysts ask whether Asia will avoid the murderous conflicts that led to two world wars in Europe. And certainly what direction China goes will be a major factor shaping the Asian security landscape.

But the combination of endless, however minor, territorial disputes across the region, and the historical memories in Korea and China of Japanese imperial behavior in the first part of the 20th century pose some intriguing 1914-like analogies.

Like Europe in 1914, Asia is more prosperous and economically and financially interdependent than ever. Similar realities in Europe led mainstream analysts like Norman Angell to conclude in the 1910 bestsellerer The Great Illusion that such economic interests made the idea of war obsolete. Then there was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and it was two world wars later when Europe finally got its act together.

Neither China, nor Japan, nor South Korea, nor India , nor most nations in Southeast Asia would accept their current borders as final. So it seems fair to ask, if these neuralgic territorial issues – even in this remarkable age of instant flows of information, ideas, finance – will trump Asia’s remarkable economic achievements and plunge the world into conflicts amongst major powers.

I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question. I would not bet against Asians learning from Europe’s mistakes. But then historical memory and nationalism remain powerful forces shaping human behavior.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He has served as senior strategist, DNI National Counterproliferation Center until June 2012, on the National Intelligence Council, and on the State Department Policy Planning staff (2005-08). 

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