Something to Talk About in the East China Sea

Posted on September 30, 2012


The diplomatic stand off between China and Japan over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands has entered its third week without any signs of de-escalation.  Positions on both sides have hardened.  Each government has released detailed accounts of the bases for their claims (ChinaJapan).  Talks earlier in the week between diplomats in Beijing yielded only an agreement to keep talking.  The atmosphere of a meeting in New York between foreign ministers Yang Jiechi and Koichiro Gemba was described as “severe.”

The September 10 statement issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs contained China’s key demand at the moment.  It stated that Japan should “come back to the very understanding and common ground reached between the two sides” and “return to the track of negotiated settlement of the dispute.”

What does this mean?  China believes that in talks with Japanese officials involving Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, agreements or understandings were reached that the islands were disputed but that any effort to resolve their conflicting positions would be deferred to achieve more pressing tasks, especially the normalization of relations in 1972 and the conclusion of a peace treaty in 1978.

Japan’s position, however, is that there is nothing to discuss.  As Prime Minister Noda stated in New York, “So far as the Senkaku Islands are concerned, they are an inherent part of our territory, in light of history and international law. It’s very clear. There are no territorial issues as such, therefore there could not be any compromise that may mean any set back from this basic position.”

Such a position – denial of a dispute – is not uncommon in conflicts over territory.  When one side controls all of the territory being contested, it often states that there is no dispute.  South Korea, for example, claims that there is no dispute over the Dokdo / Takeshima Islands, which are also claimed by Japan.  Likewise, China maintains that there is no dispute over the Paracel archipelago, which Vietnam claims.

Why, then, does China believe that there is something to talk about?  Documentary evidence is scant.  Neither side has released transcripts of meetings between leaders when the islands were discussed.  Nevertheless, authoritative party history sources from China sources reveal why Beijing maintains that there was a shared understanding in the past.

China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi accused Tokyo of stealing disputed islands, while the world knows that these islands rightfully belong to Japan.

In 1972, Zhou Enlai and Takeiri Yoshikazu (leader of the Komeito party) appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus in talks that would be held to normalize relations between the two countries.  In a recent book, Seton Hall scholar Yinan He cites a collection of documents on Chinese-Japanese relations: in July 1972, Zhou told Takeiri, “There is no need to mention the Diaoyu Islands. It does not count a problem of any sort compared to recovering normal relations [between the two countries].”   A Japanese magazine article earlier this month contains a similar account.  Thus, from China’s point of view, the decision not to discuss the dispute at the time was a recognition that a dispute did exist.

Similarly, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping and the Japanese Foreign Minister also appeared to agree orally not to discuss the Senkakus at a later time.  A chronology or nianpu of Deng’s activities published by a party research office summarizes a meeting between Deng and Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda.  According to the book, Deng stated: “It’s not that China and Japan do not have any problems. For example [there are] the Diaoyu Island and continental shelf issues. Don’t drag them in now, they can be set aside to be calmly discussed later and we can slowly reach a way that both sides can accept. If our generation cannot find a way, the next generation or the one after that will find a way.”

(The original Chinese is: “中日之间并不是没有任何问题。 比如钓鱼岛问题,大陆架问题,这样的问题。现在不要牵进去,可以摆在一边,以后从容地讨论,慢慢地商量一个双方都可以接受的办法。我们这一代找不到办法,下一代,再下一代会找到办法的。”)

To be clear, these Chinese source materials only show why China maintains that an understanding existed in the past.  Full transcripts of these meetings have not been released.  How Takeiri and Sonoda responded to Zhou and Deng is unknown.  Nevertheless, they appear to acknowledge the presence of a dispute.  At the same time, there’s no record that Zhou or Deng contested directly Japan’s actual control of the islands then, either.

Other parties, notably the United States, also view the islands as disputed.  The United States recognizes Japan’s administration of the islands, which it transferred in 1972, and that the islands fall under the mutual defense treaty.  Nevertheless, as both Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have emphasized recently, “the United States doesn’t take a position on competing sovereignty claims” over the islands.  Moreover, the U.S. position on the dispute is not new.  Before the transfer, the State Department’s take in 1971 was that “the U.S. passes no judgment as to conflicting claims over any portion of them, which should be settled directly by the parties concerned.”

At the moment, China and Japan stand at a diplomatic impasse.  Yet China’s September 10 statement retains sufficient ambiguity for creative diplomats to define the “common ground” between the two sides in order to restore stability in the dispute.  For example, Japan could state that although its sovereignty over the islands is “indisputable,” it recognizes that, in practice, other claims exist.  If China and Japan want to move forward, they will need to find a way to shelve the dispute again.

M. Taylor Fravel

U.S. call for “cool heads” in China-Japan island dispute goes unheeded

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China and Japan on Thursday to let “cool heads” prevail in a festering dispute over a cluster of East China Sea islands, but hours later Chinese and Japanese diplomats traded barbs at the United Nations.

Clinton met Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on the sidelines of this week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York and said it was important to ratchet down the quarrel over the islands that has soured ties between Asia’s two largest economies, a senior State Department official said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (R) meets with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, the United States, Sept. 27, 2012. (Xinhua/Wang Lei)

The uninhabited islets, whose nearby waters are thought to hold potentially rich natural gas reserves, are known as the Diaoyu islands in China and the Senkaku islands in Japan. They have been under Japan’s control since 1895.

“The secretary … again urged that cooler heads prevail, that Japan and China engage in dialogue to calm the waters,” the official told reporters.

“We believe that Japan and China have the resources, have the restraint, have the ability to work on this directly and take tensions down, and that is our message to both sides,” the official said.

Yang, however, used a portion of China’s annual address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday night to forcefully restate Beijing’s stance that the islands had belonged to China from ancient times and were seized in 1895 after Japan defeated the Qing Dynasty in a war.

Yang also condemned the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands earlier this month from their private owner, a step that sparked protests across China and prompted Beijing to curb bilateral trade and tourism.

“The moves taken by Japan are totally illegal and invalid,” he said of the purchase, which Tokyo says was done to ease the dispute by preventing the islands’ use by Japanese activists.

“They can in no way change the historical fact that Japan stole the Diaoyudao and affiliated islands and that China has sovereignty over them,” Yang told the General Assembly. Diaoyudao is what China calls the main island in the cluster.


Japan then exercised its right to reply in General Assembly debate, restating Tokyo’s position that no sovereignty dispute exists and that Japan began surveying the islands a decade before deciding to incorporate them in 1895, and there exists no evidence that the islands belonged to China.

“It has only been since the 1970s that the government of China and the Taiwanese authorities began making their assertions on territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands,” said Kazuo Kodama, Japan’s deputy U.N. ambassador.

“Before then they did not express any objections,” he added.

Not to be outdone, China’s U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong accused the Japanese envoy of “resorting to spurious, fallacious arguments that defy all reason and logic.”

“The recent so-called purchase of the islands is nothing different than money laundering,” he said, accusing Tokyo of buying stolen property when it acquired the islands this month.

China has declared the islands “sacred territory,” and Taiwan has also asserted its own sovereignty over the area.

Clinton was due to meet Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan in a three-way meeting on Friday. Japan and South Korea, two close U.S. allies, have also seen their relationship rocked in recent months by maritime territorial disputes.

In hour-long talks on the sidelines of the United Nations on Tuesday, Japan’s Gemba urged China to exercise restraint over the dispute. Japanese diplomats described the meeting as “tense,” as Gemba endured a stern lecture from China’s Yang.

Yang called on Tokyo to handle the dispute through negotiation, and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said “it is necessary for both countries to maintain and strengthen bilateral communications and respond to the issue calmly and with a broad perspective in mind.”


Both China and Japan have sent patrol boats in a game of cat-and-mouse in the waters near the disputed islands, raising concerns that an unintended collision or other incident could escalate into a broader clash.

In a further sign of economic fallout from the dispute, Chinese buyers and Japanese sellers of refined copper have postponed agreement on terms for 2013 shipments.

Chinese and Japanese companies failed to reach a deal in talks this week, even though Japanese sellers were willing to cut price premiums by about 10 percent from last year, a Chinese executive familiar with the talks said.

The United States has said repeatedly it takes no position on the sovereignty dispute, but believes it is important for China and Japan to work out their differences peacefully. Washington has repeatedly confirmed, however, that the U.S.-Japan security treaty would apply to the islands in the event of military attack.

In her meeting with Yang, Clinton also touched on territorial disputes in the South China Sea that have set Beijing against a number of its Southeast Asian neighbors, including the Philippines, a close U.S. ally.

China has resisted calls by the United States and some Southeast Asian countries to agree on a multilateral framework to settle the disputes, preferring to engage with each of the other less powerful claimants individually.

The U.S. official said Clinton welcomed moves by China to restart informal meetings with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, most recently in Cambodia two weeks ago, as a sign of progress.

“We expect these meetings are going to continue in the lead-up to the East Asia Summit in November,” the official said. “This is precisely what the secretary has been advocating, that they restart a dialogue.”

Clinton met later with a delegation of ASEAN ministers, who were guardedly upbeat about China’s latest moves, a second U.S. official said.

“We are going to have to wait and see over the course of the next several weeks, but we have obviously encouraged the process to grow and deepen,” the official told reporters.


Posted in: Economy, Politics