Rising tensions among countries in the East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula

By Ricardo He, 12th Grade

Over the course of the last few years, countries in the East China Sea, together with North Korea, have recently been in the spotlight over their countless conflicts and territorial disputes. Tensions have been skyrocketing with the ongoing threats from the People’s Republic of China towards Taiwan (the Republic of China) and the recent ramp-ups in North Korea’s ballistic missile tests and threats toward South Korea. Amidst the increasing tensions in the aforementioned countries, Japan lies beside the unceasing issue with the nation of Taiwan. 

The shared hostilities seen between these countries stem from each individual country’s past history with one another, and in order to have an understanding of the reasoning behind these hostilities and how the past correlates with what is happening in the present, the history of these countries must be first briefly examined. 

Disputes between China and Taiwan

Taiwan was originally administered by China’s Qing dynasty from 1683 up until 1895, after losing to the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War, where the Qing dynasty was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan. Japan occupied Taiwan for fifty years until their defeat in the Second World War, when they had to give back control of the island to the mainland. During this time, communism was becoming increasingly popular and although the nationalist forces of China tried to suppress the emerging rebellions from the Communist Party, it eventually led to a civil war between the two political parties in 1927; the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai Shek against the Communist army of Mao Zedong. After twenty-two years, in 1949, the Nationalist Party lost against the Communist army, forcing the former to the small island of Taiwan, where they established The Republic of China and the Taiwanese provincial government, respectively. 

Although Mao had planned to invade Taiwan, he first needed to consolidate the Communist Party’s hold on mainland China. Furthermore, although the Communist army was far bigger in numbers, they did not have a navy considering that the Nationalist Party had taken most of the mainland’s ships away, and their air force was quite weak compared to that of Taiwan’s (it was mostly made up of American fighters and bombers). Additionally, the U.S. threatened to use nuclear weapons on China if they were to invade Taiwan, which successfully deterred the Chinese forces. Later on, after Mao’s death, his successor Xi Jinping first preferred a peaceful reunification, however after Taiwan’s rejection over China’s sovereignty claims, the mainland has started to threaten the island with the use of military force in order to bring Taiwan under its control.

Today, the tensions between China and Taiwan keep escalating as China insists on reunifying with the island. So far, at least fifty-six Chinese jets have breached Taiwanese airspace since October of 2021 and nearly thirty unarmed drones have flown along two islands belonging to Taiwan in the past two months, making almost a daily appearance over the country. 

By August of this year, China has been seen carrying-out military exercises on six different “danger zones” around Taiwan, three of which had overlapped with the island’s territorial waters. In response to the clear and continuous breach of territory, the Defense Minister of Taiwan, as of October 6 of this year, has stated that any airspace violation by the Chinese military will be considered as a “first strike” in an effort to deter Beijing’s military pressure campaign against the country. 

Aside from the historical reasons as to why Xi Jinping might want to reunify with the island, gaining Taiwan would give China a major geographic advantage as it would not only give China control over Asia’s major shipping routes, but it would also allow China to expand its military bases further into the Pacific Ocean. Not to mention it will also gain control over Taiwan’s electronics industry and its high level of economic growth. 

Now, pressure starts mounting not only from China but from Taiwan’s own allies. One of the few remaining countries that officially recognize Taiwan, Paraguay, made a statement on September 28 urging the island to invest $1 billion in the country as it is resisting domestic pressure to switch diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. If Taiwan refuses, it might mean losing a potential diplomatic ally to the PRC. 

The Conflict between North Korea and South Korea 

Both North and South Korea were once a united nation, ruled by its last and longest lived dynasty, the Chosŏn dynasty from 1392 up until 1910, when the nation was forcefully annexed to Japan. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the country had to give up control of Korea, and it was left up to the Allies to decide what to do with it. Two Americans called Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel were responsible of making orders in the U.S.-occupied territories in East Asia. The idea of splitting Korea into two different parts occurred to them–the north and the south. The north was to be run by the Soviets and the south was to be run by the United States. The American government presented this idea to the Soviets and they agreed to the split. All of this was done without the Korean government’s consent or knowledge. 

Although both the Soviets and the Americans agreed to the split, they both had different ideas on how both countries were to be run. The Soviets wanted the entire peninsula to be communist, while the United States wanted both the north and south to have a democratic government and principles. Split in ideals, both the Soviet Union and the United States installed a puppet for the divided country. Syngman Rhee for the South and Kim Il-Sung for the North.

In 1950, with the approval of Josef Stalin and the support of communist China, North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea in the hopes of reunifying and ruling the peninsula under the communist regime. Three years later, with the support of the United States and the United Nations, South Korea was able to stop the invasion and the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. The agreement brought about a cessation of hostilities, separated the North and the South with the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and allowed the return of prisoners. 

Although an armistice was signed, no peace treaty was ever endorsed, keeping the fierce hostilities and dangerous relationship between the two countries for the last seventy two years. 

Although a few attempts to decrease tensions between the two countries have been realized, notably in June of 2018, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un becoming the first leader to meet with the then South Korean President Moon Jae-in in order to end hostile action and work towards reducing nuclear arms, right now, it seems the attempts have been futile as North Korea’s military activity and missile tests have accelerated. Just a month ago, North Korea passed a law that guaranteed the country to never give up nuclear weapons, giving the country the right to “automatically” use the weapons in order to protect itself. 

Just a couple of days ago, on the 4th of October of this year, North Korea conducted missile tests over Japan for the first time in five years, prompting a warning for northern Japanese residents to take cover over the seeming attack. On October 6th of this year, North Korea was seen firing two short-range ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters.  Twelve fighter jets were also sent near South Korea’s border, prompting the South to deploy thirty military fighter jets in response. Additionally, eight North Korean fighters and four bombers were also seen flying in formation to what is believed to be maneuvers simulating air-to-ground attacks. With increasing military action in North Korea in just a couple of days and recalling the words of the North Korean leader back in July of 2022 declaring that they were “fully prepared” for any military conflict with the United States, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that the North might be preparing for some kind of armed conflict. 

Japan’s stance on the China-Taiwan conflict

After Japan’s unconditional surrender in the Second World War, the Allied powers were responsible for post-war Japan and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur shaped the rewriting of Japan’s constitution. Written in 1946, the new Japanese constitution was adopted in 1947. It granted universal suffrage, stripped the emperor of all but symbolic power, stipulated a bill of rights, abolished peerage, and most importantly, outlawed Japan’s right to make war. 

How does this reformed constitution tie alongside the current conflict between China and Taiwan? Although Japan stopped officially recognizing Taiwan as a country after the Japan-PRC Joint Communique in 1972, the Japanese government describes the country as “an extremely crucial partner and an important friend, with which Japan shares fundamental values”.

Although initially quiet on the issue, Japan’s growing concern over China’s regional ambitions has caused Japanese officials to take a more concrete stance on the issue. Because Japan considers the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait to be directly connected with Japan’s own peace and stability, the country has opted to take a more active role to preserve peace in the strait. Now openly viewing China as a revisionist power that is attempting to “change the status quo by coercion… based on its own assertions incompatible with the existing international border”. 

In a conference back in June, top Japanese officials stated that if mainland China were to attack Taiwan, Japan should join the United States in defending it. 

“We have to protect Taiwan, as a democratic country”, said Japan’s deputy defense minister Yasuhide Nakayama. In response, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi stated that “the Taiwan question bears on the political foundation of China-Japan relations and the basic trust and good faith between the two countries” and “Japan should … shape up a right perception of China, pursue a positive, pragmatic and rational China policy, and uphold the right direction of peaceful development”. It is clear that the statements made by the Communist Party are not something to be taken lightly, as it is evident that China is deeply angered at Japan for its stance on defending Taiwan’s democracy, considering that Japan’s official policy still recognizes the authorities of mainland China and not Taiwan as China’s legitimate government.

Although the Japanese Constitution rejects the use of force to resolve international disputes, after the 2015 reforms, Japanese law now allows the military use of force when an attack on a foreign country threatens Japan’s survival, meaning that Japan could definitely make a case to aid Taiwan if it were to be attacked by the mainland. Additionally, even if Japan were not able to directly defend Taiwan, it could allow the U.S. to set up military bases in their land, allowing for a faster response against the invading Chinese forces. 


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