With all eyes on the crisis between North and South Korea, the international media have largely overlooked growing tensions between both Koreas and Japan. On April 5, Seoul lodged a diplomatic protest against Japan's renewed territorial claim to the Dokdo Islands, known as Takeshima in Japan. The protest came after Tokyo issued a formal claim over the Seoul-controlled easternmost islets through approval of a diplomatic report that stated: "Takeshima is clearly Japanese territory in light of historical facts and under an international law." In a separate protest days earlier, Seoul lodged a complaint over new textbooks approved in Japan that emphasize Tokyo's claim to the islets while downplaying Japanese wartime atrocities in Korea. (Dong-a Ilbo, April 6; Xinhua, April 5; AsiaOne, March 27)
Contractors could be illegally dumping radioactive soil, vegetation and water into rivers and open areas near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Japan's Environment Ministry admitted Jan. 4. The ministry said it will summon senior officials from companies contracted by the Fukushima Office for Environmental Restoration to answer questions on how they manage contaminated waste following claims of illegal dumping in the coastal town of Naraha, the evacuated village of Iitate, and the inland in the city of Tamura. Under a law passed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, illegal dumping of contaminated substances may be punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to ¥10 million. "It is very regrettable if that is true," Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato said of the suspected dumping at his first news conference of 2013. (Kyodo, Jan. 5)
Japan scrambled fighter jets on Dec. 13 after a Chinese maritime aircraft entered airspace over the disputed islands known as the Senkaku to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to China. The Japanese defense ministry said the incident was the first violation of Japanese airspace by a Chinese official aircraft since 1958. "It is extremely deplorable," said Osamua Fujimura, Japan’s chief government spokesman. Kyodo News quoted Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura that the plane belonging to the Chinese Oceanic Administration was spotted near the Uotsuri Island at 11:06 AM local time, and Japan's Air Self-Defense Force responded by dispatching F-15 jets. The response was of course prosted by Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: "Flying a marine surveillance airplane in airspace above the Diaoyu Islands is completely normal. China urges Japan to stop illegal actions in the waters and airspace of the Diaoyu Islands. The Diaoyu islands and affiliated islands are part of China's inherent territory. The Chinese side calls on Japan to halt all entries into water and airspace around the islands." (Japan Today, FT, BBC News, Dec. 13)
Following disturbing findings of thyroid growths in children of Fukushima prefecture, Japan's Environment Ministry this week began thyroid gland tests on children in Nagasaki prefecture, across the central island of Honshu to the south. Those children will serve as a control group for kids undergoing similar tests in Fukushima prefecture. Fukushima's prefectural government one year ago launched what it intends to be a lifelong thyroid gland test program for 360,000 children who were aged 18 or under when the disaster began in March 2011. The Fukushima screening have been conducted on 115,000 children—about one third of the total number of children that will require testing. In July, it was revelaed that over 35% of the 38,114 then screened were found to have abnormal thyroid growths.
It was the South Korean government that attempted on Oct. 22 to halt the planned balloon-drop of some 200,000 anti-North Korea pamphlets across the border into the DPRK by activists (similar to the parachute-drop of teddy bears into Belarus earlier this year). North Korea had threatened military action if the South Korean activists carried out their plan. In a post to its official Korean Central News Agency site, North Korean authorities stated that the plan "was directly invented by the group of traitors and is being engineered by the [S]outh Korean military," pledging that if any leaflets were detected on the north side of the border to respond with a "merciless military strike." So South Korean police closed roads and evacuated residents from the border zone—but activists nonetheless were successful in releasing the balloons, and no military response from the North has been initiated (yet).
Well, it finally came to an actual clash—albeit, thank goodness, with water cannon, not actual munitions—over the contested East China Sea islands, and it was not China but Taiwan that provoked the escalation. On Sept. 25, some 40 Taiwanese fishing vessels accompanied by 12 patrol boats dispatched by Taipei entered waters off the islets that the Chinese call Diaoyu, the Japanese call Senkaku, and the Taiwanese call Diaoyutai or Tiaoyutai. When a Japanese Coast Guard ship fired a water cannon to disperse the fishing boats, a Taiwanese patrol ship fired its own water cannon at the Japanese ship. The Taiwanese ships were apparently given a warning to clear off but refused, asserting that they had the right to be in their own territorial waters. Many of the Taiwanese ships were flying banners declaiming their national right to the islands. The Taiwanese fleet, which approached the islands at around 8 AM, departed by midday, according to Japanese authorities. (Japan Times, Sept. 26; The Telegraph, Sept. 25)
Japan's cabinet on Sept. 19 failed to approve recommendations of a special government-appointed panel to phase out nuclear power by 2040, in a move openly portrayed in the country's media as a capitulation to pro-nuclear businesses interests. The panel had called for a 40-year limit on the lifespan of nuclear power plants, no new plant construction, and no expansion of existing nuclear power facilities. The cabinet decision came on the same day that Japan launched a new body to oversee the industry, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which replaces the existing Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. But critics say the new agency lacks any greater powers than the old one, and protest that its head, Shunichi Tanaka, who oversaw decontamination efforts at Fukushima, is a nuclear industry insider.
It was pretty surreal to hear Leon Panetta warning of an actual war between China and Japan, arriving in Tokyo just as the two Asian powers are facing off over contested islands in the East China Sea. What made it so incongruous is that despite the obvious lingering enmities from World War II (which for China really started in 1937, or maybe even 1931), in the current world conflict that we call World War 4, warfare is explicitly portrayed even by Pentagon planners as an instrument of globalization—bringing the light of "free markets" and "integration" to benighted regions of the globe that continue to resist their lures. Warfare is now "asymmetrical," posing a single superpower and its allies against "terrorists" and insurgents, or at the very most against "rogue states." The old paradigm of war between rival capitalist powers has seemed pretty irrelevant for the past generation. In the Cold War with the Russians, the superpowers manipulated proxy forces while the US aimed for strategic encirclement of the rival power. In the New Cold War with China that is now emerging, the US again seeks strategic encirclement, and while there aren't any proxy wars being waged (no contemporary equivalent of Vietnam or Angola or Nicaragua), Japanese and South Koreans should beware of their governments being entangled in Washington's containment strategy—as Panetta's own comments acknowledge, games of brinkmanship can get out of control. And, as we noted, even as he made his warning, he was in Japan to inaugurate a new anti-missile radar system, ostensibly designed to defend against North Korea, but certain to be perceived in Beijing as a part of the encirclement strategy...