--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 6
EDITORIAL: East Asian countries must overcome hardships to share peace, prosperity

Nearly 100 years ago, the saga of a territorial dispute began over the Aland Islands in the northern part of the Baltic Sea.

The combined land area of the small islands is slightly larger than that of the main island of Okinawa Prefecture.

Finland based its sovereignty claim over the Aland Islands on the historical fact that they had been under its control for long periods, while neighboring Sweden pointed to the sentiment among residents of the islands, who spoke Swedish in their daily lives. The sovereignty dispute was submitted to the League of Nations.


In June 1921, the League of Nations decided that Finland should retain sovereignty over the islands but they should be made an autonomous, demilitarized and politically neutral region.

Both countries accepted the ruling and concluded an international treaty to make Aland “demilitarized islands.”

Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), a Japanese educator who was an undersecretary general of the league at that time, said the settlement over the Aland Islands will establish a precedent for dealing with future territorial problems that may disturb amicable relations of countries, whether large or small. But the significance of the ruling goes beyond that.

National borders, by nature, separate nations from nations, people from people.
For the 28,000 residents of the Aland Islands, however, the national border now exists only by name, and it works to link countries and people.

The passengers of ferries traveling between the islands and Sweden are not required to carry passports. Seventy percent of young people who have graduated from high school on the islands go on to universities in Sweden. Camilla Gunell, current premier of the autonomous government of Aland, says the economy of the islands benefits from an increase in people who cross the border. The decision by the League of Nations that settled the dispute has helped make the islanders richer, Gunell says.

An important undertaking to change the meaning of a national border has been also made in Germany, which faces the southern part of the Baltic Sea.

Frankfurt (Oder) is a town located on the German-Polish border, a one-hour train ride from Berlin. Before World War II, the whole region around the town was part of Germany. Following Germany’s defeat in the war, however, the area on the opposite side of the Oder River became Polish territory. Many Germans, driven out of the area that had become part of the Soviet bloc, crossed the Oder River into Germany.


An attempt to make the border less of a barrier to exchanges between people of the two countries started in 1970.

In that year, Willy Brandt (1913-1992), chancellor of West Germany, visited Poland and other countries in the Soviet bloc and announced his country’s acceptance of the borderline drawn after the war. There was opposition to Brandt’s decision within West Germany, but he made the move to ensure the coexistence and the stability of Western and Eastern Europe.

Viadrina European University, on the German side of the Oder River, was established in 1991, after the Cold War ended. The university has started a program to help people visit their hometowns in the former German territory. The project is part of the university’s efforts to accomplish its mission of serving as a bridge between the East and the West in Europe. Under the program, students at the university make necessary arrangements for people’s trips to their hometowns in the Polish side of the Oder River, including finding interpreters. It is an attempt to build links between people living on both sides of the border.

These developments in Europe are different from the path that has led to the current situation in East Asia.

Last year, tensions flared between Japan and its two neighbors--China and South Korea--over islands. The differences between the governments’ sovereignty claims seem unbridgeable. The conditions are not right for the kind of settlement worked out through diplomatic efforts in which Nitobe was involved.

Despite increased interdependence among countries due to economic globalization, territorial disputes in areas around Japan continue to generate acute international tension because of history issues related to World War II.

After the end of the war, Germany totally admitted to the war crimes committed by the Nazis. This made it possible for Germany to cooperate with neighboring countries in leading Europe toward regional integration.

On various occasions, Japan has also expressed its regret and apologies for its past invasion of neighboring countries. As a result, Japan has managed to obtain an understanding from Southeast Asian nations.

But mutual trust between Japan and its close neighbors has been eroded repeatedly by some Japanese politicians’ indiscreet remarks and actions related to history issues.

The shift in the balance of power between Japan and China, caused by China’s rise, has also widened the gaps in perceptions of people in both countries.


How should we solve the structural problems behind such mutual distrust?

There have been a variety of steady, low-profile efforts to tackle this challenge.

For example, a discussion forum called “Jing Forum” was created for regular debates between students of the University of Tokyo and Peking University. Every year, around two dozen students from both universities lodge together to discuss a wide range of issues in English. The forum’s seventh debate camp took place last autumn at the height of tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, a group of islets in the East China Sea.

Still, the participating students chose the Senkaku Islands dispute as a topic for discussions in one of the subcommittees. In Beijing, where anti-Japanese protests were raging, and in Tokyo, the students of the two universities spent two weeks or so examining the claims of both governments and engaged in heated debates. They also listened to the opinions of academics and visited companies.

In the end, none of the students totally accepted the arguments of the other side. As they discussed factors related to the educational and media environments where the claims of both countries have been generated, however, some students said they were not convinced of their governments’ arguments in the dispute. In a debriefing session, students stated their own opinions, instead of those of their governments.

“Although we didn’t reach an agreement, we understood each other and created a sense of trust between the two sides through discussions,” says Daiki Komatsu, a 21-year-old student at the University of Tokyo who heads the forum. “In order to improve relations between Japan and China, I believe it is important for us to develop stronger links between us.”

The 21st century is an age of Asia, where countries like China, India and Indonesia will expand their power and influence. We should never allow the region to return to an era of military confrontation. The countries in the region need to overcome the challenges facing them to share peace and prosperity.

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