Japan may acknowledge China’s claim to islands

Posted on October 12, 2012

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BEIJING/TOKYO – Japan is considering plans to calm tensions with China by acknowledging Chinese claims to the disputed islands in the East China Sea while maintaining its own position, the Kyodo news agency reported.

The plans would allow Japan, without changing its long-held position, to compromise a little with China over the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China. But it remains uncertain if China would be encouraged by such a step, sources quoted by the agency said.

Mr Jia Qinglin, a senior Chinese Communist Party official, had urged Japan to recognise the existence of the territorial dispute with China. He had said this in a meeting with a delegation of Japanese lawmakers and business leaders in Beijing late last month.

“Japan should realise the seriousness of the current situation, squarely face the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands and correct its mistake as soon as possible so as to avoid further damaging China-Japan ties,” Mr Jia reportedly said in the meeting.

Yesterday, International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde – who is in Tokyo for the IMF/World Bank annual meetings – called on Beijing and Tokyo to settle their row quickly, adding that “countries in this region are very important for the global economy”.

“We have a lot of substantive issues to discuss, great debates, great seminars organised. I think they lose out by not attending the meeting,” she said of China’s Finance Minister and central bank chief, who are both absent from the meetings.

But China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi yesterday defended the withdrawal of its senior delegates from the meetings in Tokyo as “completely appropriate”. China’s delegation is being led by Vice-Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao and the Vice-Head of the central bank, Mr Yi Gang, instead of their bosses, in what appears to be a snub to Japan as host of the meetings this week.

Japan is hosting the gathering for the first time in nearly half a century and about 20,000 people are expected to attend the events, which ends on Sunday – making it one of the world’s largest international conferences.

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Something to Talk About, Again

Earlier, I wrote about why China believes that a past consensus existed with Japan over deferring resolution of the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  A colleague recently alerted me to a new Chinese source that further illuminates the discussion of the issue during the talks on normalizing diplomatic relations in 1972 betweenKakuei Tanaka and Zhou Enlai.

The source is a recollection of the talkswritten by Zhang Xiangshan (张香山).  Having studied in Japan before 1949, Zhang served as an advisor to Zhou Enlai on Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s.  Zhang’s recollection is a credible source, as it was published fourteen years ago in an article in a Chinese academic journal, Japanese Studies (日本学刊) – well before the current escalation of tensions.

According to Zhang Xiangshan, Tanaka and not Zhou raised the issue at the end of their third meeting in September 1972.  Tanaka asked Zhou about China’s attitude was toward the islands.  Zhou responded that he “did not want to discuss the issue at this time, as it would not be useful (没好处).”

Tanaka pressed further, stating that “it would create some difficulties” if he returned to Japan without mentioning the islands.  Zhou replied that “because oil had been discovered in the ocean there, Taiwan had made [the islands] into a big issue, now the United States is also making them into an issue.”

Tanaka: “Okay!  There’s no need to talk about it, we can discuss it later.”

Zhou: “Let’s talk discuss it later.  Now we should grasp the basic issues that we can settle, such as first resolving the normalization of relations.  This is the most urgent issue.  Other problems should be discussed after some time has passed.”

Tanaka: “Once diplomatic relations are normalized, I believe that other problems can be resolved.”

Why does this exchange between Chinese and Japanese leaders from 1972 matter?  At the moment, China and Japan have staked out irreconcilable positions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  China wants acknowledgement of the “common ground reached between the two sides.”  Japan maintains no dispute exists and thus there is nothing to discuss, including any past exchanges on the islands in the 1970s.

Yet the Tanaka-Zhou talks suggest a way out.  Japan could acknowledge that the islands had been discussed and deferred without altering its claim to them.  China could view such as statement as acknowledging the past “common ground.”  Both sides could move on.  As Doug Paal suggests, if China rejected such a Japanese statement, then the “onus shifts to China” to de-escalate the situation.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.

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Posted in: Economy, Politics