Friday, November 5, 2010



China, Japan, Russia and America are vying to assert influence over a handful of disputed isles and islets lying off East Asian shores.

At first glance, the recent China-Japan spat concerning a boat collision followed by a Russia-Japan spat concerning a presidential visit to a remote outpost, seem like much ado about nothing; but they follow in the wake of a smouldering US-Japan conflict over the disposition of US forces in Okinawa.

Disputed islets may appear to be mere points on the map; but depending on which points you lay claim to and how you connect the dots, a nation's outline shrinks or swells far beyond its shores, its periphery defined by vanguard islets that extend territorial waters far out to sea.

The disputed islets are a cacophonous crossroads in the cross-hairs of powerful regional actors. Because the islets have changed hands and flipped political polarity more than once in the past, every claimant has at least a half-convincing story to tell.

The islets and islands in the news are not merely geographic markers staking out bold territorial claims in three dimensions; they are also historical markers staking out the fourth dimension: time.

It's hard to discuss any of the fiercely disputed islets that were once part of Imperial Japan without bringing back divisive memories of a war that took tens of millions of lives.

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