Japan-China: Time to Climb Down

Posted on September 29, 2012


If ever a case were needed to illustrate reasonable intentions producing unreasonable consequences, the current Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute is a strong candidate. Last April, Tokyo’s erratic governor, Shintaro Ishihara, long associated with causes intended to stir anti-China opinion in Japan, announced his intention to acquire three of the islands from their private owner. There is every reason to believe Ishihara wanted to turn them into a platform for activities to provoke the Chinese dragon and alarm the Japanese people into hostility toward Beijing and eventually rearming Japan. So far, Ishihara is moving Japan toward his objective, ironically with the help of China and without actually having to take over the islands.

The good intentions came from Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Over the past five months he implemented a strategy for the national government to defuse tensions and acquire or “nationalize” the islands in place of Ishihara. Historians will look back on his leadership and find missteps and a failure to anticipate Chinese reactions accurately, but Noda’s general intent to contain the issue seemed obvious.

According to a Japanese press report, he further decided on a policy option for maintaining the status quo on the islands in order to avoid provoking Beijing by rejecting options ranging from making beneficial improvements to the lighthouse to garrisoning self-defense forces, something Japan’s administration would entitle him to do.

Moreover, Noda approved a diplomatic reshuffle amid rising tensions and ugly, semi-organized anti-Japanese protests in over a hundred Chinese cities to promote seasoned, skillful diplomats to positions where they might provide adult supervision to the management of ties. (Most unfortunately, the new appointee to Beijing, Shinichi Nishimiya, a good friend and especially able diplomat, died suddenly only a few days after his appointment.)

Noda also dispatched a special envoy to explain to Beijing the background to his management of the issue. To be sure, Noda did not and should not bend to every Chinese demand, but his policy choices demonstrated general sensitivity to China’s concerns.

Nonetheless, Beijing has chosen to interpret the prime minister’s decisions as part of a conspiracy to change the status quo. The timing of the nationalization, close to the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident starting the Sino-Japanese war and immediately after a personal warning not to do so by China’s President Hu Jintao, further inflamed the Chinese reaction.

Beijing insists, on the basis of its own records, that Japan agreed to “shelve” the dispute over the sovereignty of the islands in exchanges surrounding the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972 and their bilateral peace treaty in 1978. Japan insists there was no such consensus and that the islands are indisputably Japanese sovereign territory.

Both Tokyo and Beijing are in the midst of highly charged political seasons.China is coming to the conclusion of its decennial leadership transition, with plenty of hints of rough spots in replacing 70 percent of its top officials. Prime Minister Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is coming to the end of his time in office. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe has just won election to the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on the basis of tough talk about Japan’s neighbors, and he is well positioned to lead the next, likely coalition, government after nationwide elections that are expected “soon.” So leaders on both sides are guarding their patriotic flanks and sacrificing relations with each other to that end.

It is time for China and Japan to take stock of the changed environment and make plans for how they will climb down from the current confrontation. Official Chinese spokesmen have demanded a return to the status quo ante, but they have not so far specifically demanded that Noda undo the deal he made for the purchase of the islands. This may provide a small opening for a rhetorical compromise.

Japan has said that it never acknowledged officially that China has a claim on the islands, but rather rejected the notion. Past bilateral arrangements to return Chinese fishermen who were found in Japanese waters without trial were only about how to handle violations by fishermen after the fact, not an indication that Japan was acknowledging that its law did not apply in the island’s territorial waters. (In the previous flare-up in the islands in 2010, the Chinese became particularly irate that a ship captain was to be tried in a Japanese court, before the captain was released.)

An uncomfortable truth is that after returning the islands to Japanese “administration” in 1972, the United States has consistently stated that it takes no position on the ultimate disposition of the islands, but that since they are administered by Japan, the Mutual Security Treaty would apply to protecting them. Thus, Washington has implicitly endorsed the notion that there is a dispute—something Tokyo is now rejecting—even as it promises to help Japan hold onto the islands.

It is of course quite normal in territorial disputes for the party in control of the territory to deny that it is disputed. A case could be submitted to the International Court of Justice for arbitration, but usually the party in possession will not agree to do so out of concern it would imply doubt about the claim.

In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, there may be one more step a forbearing Noda can take to defuse the current tensions. A senior authoritative figure in the government can publicly reiterate that Japan’s claim and administration are beyond dispute, but note that Tokyo does not deny that others (China and Taiwan) dispute this. Or Japanese officials can assert that they do not believe the status quo has changed, and then conduct Coast Guard and other activity near the islands as they did before the crisis erupted. This may allow Beijing to step back from the daily barrage of tough rhetoric and admit that the status quo ante has been restored. If Beijing rejects the gesture in its direction, then the onus shifts to China.

China, once it is past the sensitive leadership conclaves about to occur, has good reason to stop damaging its relations with Japan through a bullying posture that is undermining its effort to develop “soft power,” and to calm relations in its neighborhood. Moreover, both Japan and China have rapidly expanded their economic interdependence in recent years and neither need to add to the opportunity costs of a deepening political chill, let alone drift into something hotter.

Douglas H. Paal

Changing course, government officials talking up Senkaku sovereignty

Realizing it could not allow China to monopolize international discourse on the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute, the government has changed course and begun to aggressively speak out on Japan’s legitimate sovereignty over the uninhabited islands.

Government officials until now had not commented about the issue because the official stance is that no territorial dispute exists over the islands, which the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands.

Referring to the change in course at a Sept. 28 news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said, “While there was no need in the past to comment because a territorial dispute did not exist, with (China) transmitting only its side of the argument, we felt there was also a need to explain our position just as strongly.”

A Chinese marine surveillance vessel, foregound, cruises side by side with a Japan Coast Guard ship within Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands on Sept. 24. (The Asahi Shimbun)

In recent days, China has openly criticized Japan’s claim to the islands and has not only commented about the issue in international forums but has also taken out advertisements in Western media laying out its arguments.

At a Sept. 27 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, “There is no way of changing the historical fact that Japan stole the Diaoyu Islands.”

In response, Kazuo Kodama, Japan’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said at the same assembly meeting that China had never challenged Japanese sovereignty over the islands until the 1970s and called the argument that Japan stole the islands an error.

Foreign Ministry officials had prepared several counter-arguments depending on what Yang said in his U.N. speech. The four situations considered were: if he only argued that the islands were Chinese territory; if he called as invalid the placing of the islands under U.S. administration through the San Francisco Peace Treaty and argued that the islands were always Chinese territory ever since the end of World War II; if he referred to Chou En-lai’s and Deng Xiaoping’s comment about tabling the Senkakus issue until future generations could resolve it; and if he made arguments that touched upon past wars.

Yang is not the only high-ranking Chinese official who has made increasingly virulent comments since Japan assumed national ownership of the islands.

The decision by the Noda administration to change its stance was made on Sept. 22 before Noda left to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. Discussions were held among high-ranking government and Foreign Ministry officials.

While in New York, Noda met with the leaders of five nations and explained to each that the Senkakus were Japanese territory.

At a news conference before returning to Japan, Noda said, “I explained Japan’s position by utilizing the U.N. General Assembly to the fullest.”

In explaining why Japan has not until now explained its position to leaders of third nations, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said, “If a territorial dispute did not exist, it would be meaningless to respond to any argument made by China.”

Another reason Japan likely long kept quiet on the issue was to avoid agitating Beijing.

After the Noda Cabinet purchased some of the Senkaku Islands from private ownership, making them state property, on Sept. 11, Japanese embassies abroad have repeatedly sent in reports about China buying ads in various overseas media arguing for its territorial claim over the islands as well as about local media reports which paint Chinese arguments as though they were facts.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba held discussions with high-ranking ministry officials about what response to take.

In mid-September, instructions were sent out to overseas embassies to strengthen their efforts to transmit Japan’s stance on the issue.

At a Sept. 19 news conference, Genba said, “While no territorial dispute exists, a diplomatic issue does exist.”

Diplomats at overseas embassies have begun briefings of high-ranking officials at media organizations as well as scholars in Western nations.

On Sept. 26, the Japanese Consulate-General in Los Angeles issued a protest to a local newspaper, calling one report biased in China’s favor.

On Sept. 27, the Foreign Ministry also issued a document listing what it calls the facts about the Senkakus issue.

At the same time, the government has not spoken out as strongly about the territorial dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima islets, in part because Seoul has not been as aggressive about making its claim in the international arena.

Posted in: Economy, Politics