His suggested head:In Asia today, there are 66 extant territorial disputes, involving all major powers in the region. Many of these sovereignty claims over disputed territories are of an explosive nature.
The first visit by a Russian president to the disputed Southern Kurile Islands, just off of Japan's northern coast in what Japanese refer to as the "Northern Territories," has triggered a huge Russo-Japanese diplomatic row and is the latest red flag in what could eventually lead to a series of territorial conflicts in East Asia.
The four islands at the southernmost of the Russian-occupied territories were once part of Japan, with 17,000 Japanese inhabitants. In its fastness, Imperial Japan gathered its secret attack on Pearl Harbor. After Japan's surrender in 1945, Soviet forces seized the islands, but Tokyo has never ceased in claiming its sovereignty over these islands six miles from Hokkaido.
President Dmitry Medvedev's November Kurile Islands tour could not have come at a more inopportune time for Japan which is actively quarreling with China over ownership of islands in the South China Sea-known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyudao in China. Now, for the second time in less than two months, "Japan," summarizes the Economist, "to its dismay is getting beaten about by neighbors over lumps of territory."
"Russia's bold action has seriously hurt Japan's pride," says South Korea's Joong Ang Daily "adding another blow to its already injured ego. The rage driving Japan is understandable: Russia's synchronized act with China is clearly meant to be provocative."
Many Asian, especially Japanese, analysts and diplomats see Beijing's hands in action. "China and Russia," says Japan Times, "have built a 'tacit tie-up' against Japan to take advantage of the Democratic Party of Japan's diplomatic inexperience and deterioration in Japan-U.S. ties over the relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa."
Others say that the Kurile Islands episode illustrates the growing geopolitical clout of China and Russia and worry that increasingly East Asia is turning into a military powder keg. "The only thing we had before was the economic intertwining," Alan DuPont of University of Sydney told BBC, "and we know from experience that this does not guarantee stability. It could turn out that after another twelve months of this, everyone pulls back and settles down and new lines are drawn. But I don't actually think that is going to happen - I see this as the beginning of a more volatile period strategically in East Asia."
From the Sea of Japan to South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean off the mainland of Asia has been turned into a "Sea of Troubles"-not just Japan versus Russia over the Kurils or China versus Japan over the Senkaku, but also Southeast Asian states versus China in the South China Sea. "These and other disputes," Philip Cunningham, commentator for Bangkok Post, writes, "such as the Paracels and Spratleys, lie in a veritable ring of fire, prone not only to tectonic plate shifts and volcanic activity, but abrupt political eruptions as well. All it takes is an incident, an accident or a controversial visit and suddenly some little islet on some remote seabed looms large, bursting into public view with pent-up fury, whipping up a storm of incendiary rhetoric and spasms of outraged nationalism."
Japan is at the center of the storm. Already under fire for appearing to bow to Beijing's demands, Japan's Democratic Party-led government now faces enormous domestic pressure to take a tougher stance after Russia's "diplomatic slap." Japan, however, cannot afford having tensions with two nuclear powers at the same time. Moscow's plans for Russian Far East expansion, together with an ever more assertive China and its growing naval power and maritime ambitions and a willingness to employ any weapon in its possession against Japan, are driving Japan into the United States' arms and Tokyo is moving fast in repairing its security alliance with the United States, after a year of rocky relations strained by the Futenma relocation issue.
A Russo-Japanese or Sino-Japanese territorial tiff is not just hot air; feelings run deep and the stakes are high. These struggles for control of disputed territories are not just about resources, it is also a battle to reclaim history. Now with the United States joining the fracas by bluntly affirming Washington's unequivocal support for Tokyo's territorial claims against both Beijing and Moscow, it is not difficult to see the signs of a new cold war in East Asia.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.