A Rocky Identity: Power struggle for the seas and our identities

In recent years, tensions between Asian countries over hotly contested waters, rocks and manmade islands have become impossible to ignore. For this issue, I had the opportunity to talk with Professor Alexis Dudden, who is teaching at Yonsei GSIS for the year while working on a book about maritime disputes in East Asia.

In our conversation we talked about the role of history and about this issue’s focus, bias, in these maritime conflicts. Professor Dudden spoke of conflicting perceptions of national identity based on territory; and how the evolution of the first-person pronoun, particularly in Chinese narrative, has had an effect on these conflicts.

We began by delving into the history; Professor Dudden, how do you think that these current disputes are linked to history?

That’s an excellent question because state claims to territory are by definition historic, and any state that is coming into being comes into being by claiming a place for itself. And at the moment, Northeast Asia, and Asia in general, is particularly unstable based on territorial disputes. The biggest territorial dispute is the Korean Peninsula, which most people see entirely on land, and for all real intents and purposes it is the DMZ, but the limit lines in the water have obviously caused a lot of friction.

In my own research, I am particularly looking at the disputed islands; islands that in the South Korean case fall in what the North Koreans don’t recognize as the South’s water. For the broader picture, I am analysing Japan’s current disputed islands primarily because the way that, in recent years, the Japanese government has pursued territorial claims seems to go against Japan’s current national interests… and it is also erases Japanese history.

Professor Dudden continued the link between history and these territorial claims, explaining why it is important to include history in the maritime disputes analysis:

Introducing a broader historical approach can open up people’s awareness about how these islands have a long history, how they became part of the Japanese Empire, how they fell out of the Japanese Empire. That brings in the United States, because the US essentially created the post-war geography for Asia through the San Francisco Treaty.

Then, my American citizenship comes into the room, and I bear responsibility to look at how the US factors into these particular disputes that have the region on edge, and try to propose ways to figure out joint resource development schemes and ways of doing that without the particular state losing face; backing down from saying this is our territory. Because territory becomes such a part of national identity in these battles, particularly in the last five years, that now you have people in central China, who will probably never in their lifetimes see the East China Sea, believing that those islands were always Chinese. So the question is, how did that belief come about and how do we redirect that conversation? Because, there is no winner in disputes that have reached this level of tension.

How did these tensions become so fraught? It’s a way of displacing the bigger problem onto a sort of abstract area. These are uninhabitable islands for the most part or, in the case of the Russia-Japan dispute [Kuril Islands], most people don’t want to live on; they are cold and you have to be a fisherman. It is absolutely essential, moving forward, to see beyond national borders because these national borders no longer hold populations in – and to try to convince people into being Korean and into being Japanese based on some perceived ownership of a territory nobody wants to be on shows how empty this line of policy is.

October,2013. Professor Alexis Dudden and her son, her co-captain and research assistant, on ulleungdo en route to Dokdo

Later in our conversation, I asked Professor Dudden about her opinion on the relatively recent rise of the first-person pronoun in Chinese writing and thought: Do you think the first-person – the ‘I’ – affects the ongoing maritime disputes in Asia right now? And if so, how?

I think it’s a moment in Chinese society; it’s similar to moments that have happened in Japan and in Korea and it has also happened before in China. In the wake of the Republican Revolution of 1911, under the first nationalist government, Chinese novels had lots of ‘I’ in them too. That went down and the social realist novel took over. But it’s back now, and so individuals and society certainly can be manipulated for nationalist ends.

And I think you may be seeing that in the tension over unification policy here [in South Korea]. For a long time: ‘this is what being South Korean is, we are the only government.’ Then there was the unification policy, we were back to a different kind of ‘I’ – ‘we don’t want them, but we don’t want them to die.’ Now, there’s a different kind of ‘I’ happening here – ‘I am not North Korean.’ What’s weird is that outside of here, you can go to London, you can go to Barcelona and you can find a North Korean and they are just as Korean.

By way of saying, in China, it’s this kind of moment: who is Chinese, who counts? To me what is fascinating is that the Chinese Communist Party is nationalizing itself. It’s not dropping the communist part and it’s doing it with these islands. How do you make a disenfranchised Chinese who’s not benefiting from the economic success care about China? You say: ‘greater China has been challenged’. And, I think about it in terms of the island disputes.

In the year 2000, China and Taiwan were apparently going to go to war. So if you stood on the street corner in Beijing and you said, ‘island dispute in the East China Sea,’ Chinese people would have thought that you were talking about Taiwan. But now, everybody would think about these rocks that no Chinese person could actually find unless they were fishermen. And that’s been the trick that the CCP has done so well by saying: ‘You’re Chinese if you care about these islands.’

As Professor Dudden points out, we are discussing small dots on a map, but they are not only small dots. We might be discussing security and economic tensions, but it is not only security and economics that matter. It is the history and national identity, this ‘I’ that these countries have projected onto these islands is also at stake.