Shinzo Abe has summoned the ghosts of nationalism in the Pacific. Neighbouring countries are worried by the Japanese prime minister’s revisionism concerning the historical behaviour of his country. The impact of this on Sino-Japanese relations tends to receive most attention in the western media. But there is also an increasingly fractious relationship between Japan and South Korea. Here, though, Mr Abe can and should make a bold move to dramatically improve his standing and transform the region.The Takeshima islands, which South Koreans call the Dokdo islands, are rocky outcrops in the Sea of Japan. Korean nationalists view them as a legacy of imperial Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea. Tokyo unsurprisingly rejects this view. This should not matter to Mr Abe. He should hand the islands’ sovereignty to Seoul.
Japanese historians have recently raised questions about their country’s claim to Takeshima/Dokdo. For example, Professors Norio Kuboi and Yoshihiro Kuroda have been quoted by the Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo as saying, “we perceive the Dokdo issue as an historical issue rather than a territorial issue”. They add that 18th century Japanese maps show the Dokdo islands (which Japan occupied to facilitate its 1904-05 war against Russia) falling under Korean sovereignty. Korean historians say, correctly, that many earlier Japanese maps did not show Dokdo as Japanese territory.
If the historical record is truly open to differing interpretations in Japan, then a grand gesture by Tokyo conceding Takeshima/Dokdo to Seoul would amount to an unimpeachable act of good will, tantamount to Anwar Sadat of Egypt going to Israel in 1977, or to Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.
Consider its shock value: it would transform Korean perceptions of Japan. Mr Abe would become a leading contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. The gesture would also force the Chinese and others taking a dim view of 19th and 20th century Japan to re-examine their views. These small islets have little redeeming economic, political or strategic value to Japan; they are, instead, a geopolitical liability.
Some would counsel that such a move would be irresponsible, setting Japan down a slippery slope towards Chinese demands for it to give up the Senkaku (what the Chinese call the Diaoyu) islands and those of Russia over the disputed Northern Territories. But one can just as easily see such a grand gesture clearing East Asia’s decks, enabling Japan to set out its much stronger case against China and Russia.
Japan incorporated the Senkakus based on its 1895 decision that those islands were “unclaimed territory” – rather than, as the Chinese contest, war booty from the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese war in the same year. Similarly, the Northern Territories dispute with Russia rests on valid and particular arguments about whether these form part of the Kuril island chain. While the Takeshima/Dokdo islands are an emotional issue in South Korea, the islets matter is not nearly as important for Japan as the Senkakus or Northern Territories.
For Mr Abe, it would be an audacious act. The recent spate of nationalist activities, such as the visit of 168 sitting Diet members to the Yasukuni military shrine, has reinforced doubts about Japan’s ability to honestly confront its past.
A move on Takeshima/Dokdo would help to quell suspicions of Mr Abe’s new regime. It would boost Seoul-Tokyo security co-operation against mutual threats such as North Korea. In response to populist concerns, South Korea recently backed out of a pact that would have enhanced intelligence sharing. The US is encouraging closer ties between its two most important Asian allies that would also enable trilateral co-operation as the US bolsters its posture in the region.
Far from signalling Mr Abe’s weakness, it would telegraph his strategic purpose. Such a bold move would also mirror the flexibility being shown among southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore – about resolving some of their own island disputes.
In grand strategy, there is much to recommend eradicating trivial irritants and concentrating instead on the main game. Mr Abe should be bold, give the islands back – then reap the benefits.
James Clad is a senior adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses and Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This piece first appeared on Financial Times.