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Japan’s Maritime Disputes: Implications for the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Authors: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, and Charles McClean
June 30, 2013
Center for Naval Analyses


Japan currently has three sovereignty disputes with its neighbors in Northeast Asia. Negotiations with Russia to the north over the Northern Territories (Kuril Islands) began in the 1950s, but there have been no sustained efforts to resolve the island disputes with either South Korea Takeshima/Dokdo) or China (Senkaku/Diaoyu). Instead, sovereignty disputes were set aside in the interests of concluding bilateral peace treaties.

However, recent nationalist sentiments over sovereignty claims have caused considerable damage to bilateral relations with China (2010 and 2012) and South Korea (2012), and propelled these territorial disputes to the center of Japanese diplomacy.

The simultaneous emergence of these diplomatic problems creates serious geostrategic challenges for Tokyo. While each dispute has its own particular diplomatic narrative, the roots of each lie in Japan's postwar settlement in the aftermath of World War II. Seoul and Beijing, in particular, base their sovereignty claims on the history of Japanese imperial expansion and aggression. Thus, Japan must contend with these disputes now as South Koreans and Chinese see them: as inextricably entwined with the broader tapestry of South Korean and Chinese efforts to revise their postwar settlements with Japan.

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