Seoul Must Not Let Guard Down in Asian Territory Disputes

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the country's leader-in-waiting, told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday that Washington must not meddle in the territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands.

Xi called Japan's "purchase" of the Diaoyu islands a "farce" and criticized Tokyo for failing to reflect on the pain and suffering it brought to its Asian neighbors before and during World War II.

Meanwhile, two Chinese naval frigates on Thursday entered waters near the islands where 16 Chinese maritime patrol vessels and fishing guidance ships are facing off against around 50 Japanese patrol boats. This is the first time that Chinese battleships have appeared in waters surrounding the islands.

When China and Japan signed a peace and friendship treaty back in 1978, then-Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping decided to put the dispute on the back burner, saying that the next generation would be able to come up with a solution to the problem. In 1973, Mao Zedong told U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger that China can live without Taiwan for the time being and that the two could reunite a hundred years later. Mao did not want the Taiwan issue to pose a stumbling block to improving relations between Beijing and Washington.

In the 1970s, China's top national security objective was to protect itself from the Soviet threat in the north and the U.S. threat from waters to its south. As a result, it had no choice but to shelve territorial disputes with its neighbors.

For quite some time, Japan has maintained a flimsy claim to South Korea's Dokdo islets, while China has sought to claim the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, which are controlled by Japan. But Japan and China both accepted the status quo and refrained from taking hasty steps to change things. Rash moves attempting to change territorial boundaries would only create instability.

But when the Noda administration in Japan "bought" the Diaoyu islands from a private owner earlier this month, China immediately took steps to assert its sovereignty over them.

The latest developments are a reminder for South Korea that it could face unforeseen challenges and provocations over Dokdo. For the last 60 years, South Korea's national security goals have been focused on cooperating with the U.S. to deal with a possible North Korean invasion. But as the framework of order in Northeast Asia shifts, South Korea now faces the possibility of having to defend itself against threats from Japan over Dokdo and from China over Ieo Island. It cannot rely on foreign alliances in issues involving such new security threats.

Those seeking to become South Korea's next president must realize the security threats in Northeast Asia, which can directly affect Korean Peninsula, and come up with adequate measures to deal with them. The public must also stay alert to the issue given its complexity and sensitivity.

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 21, 2012 13:38 KST